Contributor: Rochelle Campbell


If we wanted a poster child for plastic to throw darts at, we could pick from a bevy of folks, and organisations, couldn’t we?

However, the place to begin is to look at the person who first created man-made plastic – Alexander Parkes. He revealed his invention at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London. Parkes’ invention was called Parkesine, now known as celluloid. It was an organic material created from cellulose Parkes heated. The cellulose then was molded. When it cooled, it kept the shape it had been molded into. Parkes was competing with rubber, the “it” material of his time, but his invention was cheaper to produce.

The next image for our dart board would be Leo Hendrik Baekland. In 1907, while experimenting to create a synthetic varnish, he lucked into discovering a new formula to make a synthetic polymer created from coal tar. This new invention, once it was molded into shape, could not be melted and was called Bakelite.

Bakelite began to be used in all manner of things including cameras and telephones. Two years later, Baekland came up with a name he preferred…plastics.

Plastic began to be used heavily in the U.S., after the First World War when cost and resources became key factors for finding good alternatives for wood, glass and metal. And, the boom kicked off in the 1970’s when high-tech plastics proliferated in the fields of health and technology (remember those huge brick-like cell phones?)

Why the walk down memory lane? To show that the original thoughts behind this product were full of good, innovative intentions to help the world in a time of uncertain, chaos and need.

Yet, once the lean crisis times passed, man’s thirst for cheap, easy to manufacture consumer goods with a high profit margin kicked in, well – that’s what lead us to today. With our proliferation of extremely hi-tech plastics that truly do not melt, freeze, break, crack or peel in heat, or extreme temperatures; items that will still be here long after Man no longer walks the earth…

Ahem, you may be wearing plastic right now. Yes, as you read this article. “Hmm…?” You say.



Polyester is a polymer, which is a long chain of repeating molecular units and is created in a lab (first made popular by DuPont, an American chemical company, in the 1950’s). It is derived from crude oil and is used to make soda and ketchup bottles. When a polymer is melted, it will remind you of cold honey. Chemists then make thin filaments out of the soft honey-like substance and create threads that they weave into fabric and voila – you have polyester. (Now you know why you’re so warm when you wear those super cute jeans, tees and hoodies from your favorite store…[H&M, Zara, Uniqlo, Walmart, Target, etc.])

We digress. Our topic is actually about the terms used for plastic and what to look out for on labels and packaging. Yet, the scope of the term “plastic” is so broad, there was a need to ensure that we all are fully cognizant of the fashionable fiction that is polyester.

Now comes the easy part; the symbols to alert you about the types of plastics you will come into contact with in your day-to-day life.

The tougher part? Committing to memory each symbol and what it means.

The really hard part? Choosing to eat, or not to eat, your favorite snack, chip, or bottle of fizzy because you know what that choice means for our planet.


UK / EU Symbols


Widely Recycled

This label is applied to packaging that is collected by 75% or more of local authorities across the UK, for example plastic bottles.


Widely Recycled – Rinse

Rinsing packaging, for example food trays, ensures that any food residue doesn’t contaminate other materials, particularly if they are collected together with paper.

It also helps to stop attracting vermin into the recycling sorting centres where people work.


Widely Recycled – Rinse, Lid On

You might see this on a glass jar, for example. These items should be rinsed, as above, and their lids left on. Even though the lid of the jar might be metal, it is better to be kept on.

If the metal lid is too small then it will fall through holes in the sorting process, designed to remove contamination. The metal is separated from the glass by the glass recyclers and goes off to be recycled elsewhere.


Widely Recycled – Flatten, Cap On

Flatten – you might see this on plastic bottles and drinks cartons. Squashing or flattening the packaging means that you have more space in your recycling bin. It also makes the transport of recycling much more efficient – less air, more recycling, better for the environment. Replacing the caps on bottles (and some cartons too) helps to keep them flat.

Cap On – you might see this on plastic bottles. If the cap is too small then it will fall through the holes in the sorting process, designed to remove contamination. Keeping the cap on means that all of the packaging will get through the recycling process. When recycling is collected all mixed together it also helps to prevent other materials, particularly glass, getting stuck inside the bottles.


Bottle – Widely Recycled, Sleeve – Not Yet Recycled

Remove sleeve – depending on the packaging it can be good to remove the outer sleeve. For example, a paper sleeve that is wrapped around a large yoghurt pot can be removed and recycled with paper.

Sometimes the sleeves are not recyclable and therefore the instruction is to remove the sleeve and put it in the waste bin. If it doesn’t say either way, then you can probably leave it on and it will be removed during the recycling process.


Widely Recycled at Recycling Centres

Metal paint cans can be recycled at recycling centres. Some paint can also be recycled. Check with your local council.


Widely Recycled at Recycling Points: Check Locally for Kerbside

Food and drink cartons e.g. Tetra Paks are collected by many local authorities and can also be recycled at many recycling centres.


Recycle with Bags at Larger Stores: Check Locally for Kerbside

Plastic film, wrap and bags (PE) – Some plastic films can be recycled at supermarket’s carrier bag collection points. Look out for the ‘Recycle with carrier bags at larger stores’ message on your breakfast cereal, toilet and kitchen roll wraps, bread bag, grocery produce, multipack shrink wrap and newspaper and magazine wraps.


Check Locally

This label is applied to packaging that is collected by 20-75% of local authorities across the UK, for example some types of plastic packaging.


Not Yet Recycled

This label is applied to packaging when less than 20% of local authorities collect it across the UK, for example crisp packets.


American Symbols


#1: *PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

Used for soda and water bottles. For single use only; if re-used can leach chemicals into beverage(s) – also, a major factor for bacterial growth. The only way to decontaminate these bottles is with the use of harsh chemicals.


#2: *HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

Used for milk bottles, detergent, oil bottles, toys and some plastic bags. The safest form of plastic. Does not break down when exposed to extreme temperatures (hot, or cold) nor when placed in direct sunlight. The most recycled form of plastic.


#3: PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

Use for clear plastic food wrap, oil bottles, children’s teething rings, children’s and pets toys as well as used for plumbing parts, window frames and garden hoses. PVC has the nickname “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins that can leach out over the course of its use. PVC contains phthalates and continuous exposure is toxic Phthalates is a known carcinogen.

Not recyclable; when PVC is disposed of via incineration, the most common way to dispose of it, it forms hydrochloric acid (HCL). When firefighters are exposed to burning PVC, it is of great concern and danger.


#4: *LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

Used for shrink wrap, dry cleaner garment bags, squeeze bottles, the plastic bags used for bread and most grocery stores use LDPE plastic grocery bags to pack our groceries in. Less toxic than other plastics. However, it is not commonly recycled.


#5: PP (Polypropylene)

Used for the thin plastic wrap in cereal boxes (to keep your breakfast munchies fresh), diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, yogurt containers, margarine tubs, potato chip bags, straws, packaging tape and rope. It is considered safe for reuse. Currently, only 3% of PP plastics are recycle but more and more recycling centres are adding LDPE plastics to what they will accept.


#6: PS (Polystyrene)

Used for takeout food (clamshell containers); egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging, packing “peanuts”, and Styrofoam drinking cups. Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products especially when heated in a microwave. Taken directly from the EarthEasy website, they state: “Chemicals present in polystyrene have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction.” [Can we say, stand away from PS items?? Ahem…]

Polystyrene is not commonly recycled and ends up in our waters where fish, and other marine life (like turtles) ingest it and die as they cannot digest this material.


#7: Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN)

Used for baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles, and car parts. There are no standardized recycling protocols for these plastics. We know about BPAs, by now. We know it is an endocrine disrupter (yes, the major system of the human body).

[That’s why we love Contigo and many other brands for making BPA free bottles! Okay, coming down off soap box.] Not recycled.


#7 PLA: If you use it, throw in compost bin; these are not recyclable either.


Please note: *The safest plastics are #1, #2 and #4. These three types do not contain BPA.



Bio: Rochelle Campbell – Writer. Dreamer. Budding Zero-Waster. Recycling more, dreading it less. Join me in my journey towards helping our planet thrive one day at a time. Website: Blog:



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