The same strong molecular bonds that make plastic materials tough and durable also make them a persistent problem as trash -- plastics take decades or even centuries to break down. To lessen the buildup of plastic waste in the environment, manufacturers recycle discarded plastics into a wide variety of consumer, commercial and industrial goods.
Plastic bottles for shampoo, detergent and household cleaners come from a plastic called high-density polyethylene. Manufacturers can leave the plastic in its natural state, which is a translucent, milky white, or they can add colorful pigments to make bottles stand out on the grocery store shelf. Although new HDPE sees use in food packaging such as milk bottles as well as nonfood items, as recycled material it is suited for nonfood products only.
Polyvinyl chloride recycles well, resulting in flexible and resilient goods such as orange traffic cones, mud flaps and garden hoses. Unlike brittle materials such as polystyrene, this plastic is tough and handles impacts well. It can also be used in rigid items including plumbing pipe, decking and floor tiles. As with other kinds of plastic, PVC is available in its pure, clear form or mixed with pigments for color.
Film and Sheeting
Low-density polyethylene is a chemical cousin to high-density polyethylene, and is more transparent and flexible than the high-density variety. LDPE and HDPE are similar in their ability to resist chemicals such as acids and bases. Recycled LDPE finds its way into products such as film and sheeting, trash bags and shipping envelopes.
Recycled polystyrene is the plastic material in Styrofoam, used in packing “peanuts,” egg cartons and other products used to protect goods during shipping. Styrofoam is simply polystyrene with air bubbles puffed into the substance; depending on how it's made, the foam can be relatively rigid or springy. In addition to packing materials, Styrofoam makes an excellent thermal insulation, used in items such as picnic coolers.
About the Author
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance." Please, no workplace calls/emails!