In this guide, we outline:
- the different plastic types,
- the most commonly produced of them,
- what they are used for,
- which ones can be recycled
- and, what they can be recycled for/repurposed to make
Let’s take a look.
Summary – The Types Of Plastic
A summary of plastic types and their features and capabilities:
There’s many ways plastic can be categorized
One overarching way might be as 1. A primary or secondary plastic, and 2. In terms of what it’s made of/it’s composition, and what it’s used for
On a more specific level, there’s 6 or 7 types of plastic – PETE/PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS & ‘Other/Miscellaneous Plastics’ (all made with different compounds, properties, characteristics and for different things)
[Another way to categorise plastics might be as commodity plastics, standard plastics, engineering plastics, and specialist plastics]
[Some people even categorize them as single use, or long life plastics]
The most produced plastics are PP, LD/LDPE, PP & A fibres, HDPE, PVC, PET, PUR, PS, additives and other (in that order)
The most wasted plastic types are LDPE, PP, PP&A fibers, HDPE, PET, PS, PUT, PVC and other – in that order
Bioplastics are made from renewable biomass feedstock instead of fossil fuel. PLA is a common one, but PHA is also used. A few issues with PLA is that it doesn’t decompose quickly in soil or seawater, it’s only compostable under the right conditions, and it’s not biodegradable as under normal conditions it breaks down as slowly as conventional plastics. With PHAs specifically, they are expensive and might have other issues
PDK is a new plastic under development, that can be recycled infinitely, but may only have limited applications at this stage
A General Explanation Of Categorising The Different Plastic Types
Types of plastic can be categorised in different ways:
- Primary, or secondary types of plastic
- What the plastic is made of/it’s composition, and what it’s used for
How Many Different Types Of Plastic Are There? – The 6 (or 7) Different Plastic Types
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
- High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
- Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
- Polypropylene (PP)
- Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
- Miscellaneous plastics (includes: polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon)
Each of the above types of plastic are made with different compounds, with different properties, and are made overall in different ways.
There is another list of plastics outlined at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic. Under the ‘Types’ section, they list the commodity plastics, or standard plastics, engineering plastics, and specialist plastics.
Why Do Some People Say There Are Only Two Types Of Plastic?
They might be referring to single use plastics (that might be used and disposed of in seconds or minutes), and other longer life cycle plastics that have a longer lifespan (up to years and decades).
Check out a graph showing the lifespan of plastics used in different sectors/industries at https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/mean-product-lifetime-plastic
What Are The Resin Numbers/Codes For The Different Types Of Plastic?
- #1 – PETE (e.g. soft drink bottles)
- #2 – HDPE (e.g. milk jugs)
- #3 – PVC (e.g. sweet trays, bubble foils and food foils)
- #4 – LDPE (e.g. shopping bags)
- #5 – PP (e.g. furniture, toys and luggage)
- #6 – PS (e.g. toys, refrigerator trays and hard packing)
- #7 – Other (a plastic other than the above six, or a mixture of plastics … baby feeding bottles are one example)
Most Commonly Produced Plastic Types
The most common types of polymers, produced in millions of tons, in 2015, were:
- PP – 68 million tons
- LD & LDPE – 64 million tons
- PP&A Fibers – 59 million tons
- HDPE – 52 million tons
- PVC – 38 million tons
- PET – 33 million tons
- PUR – 27 million tons
- PS – 25 million tons
- Additives – 25 million tons
- Other – 16 million tons
Global primary plastic waste generation by polymer type, measured in tonnes per year, in 2015, was:
- LD, LDPE – 57 million tonnes
- PP – 55 million tonnes
- PP&A Fibers – 42 million tonnes
- HDPE – 40 million tonnes
- PET – 32 million tonnes
- PS – 17 million tonnes
- PUT – 16 million tonnes
- PVC – 15 million tonnes
- Other polymer types – 11 million tonnes
(LDPE is Low-density polyethylene; HDPE is High-density polyethylene; PP is Polypropylene; PS is Polystyrene; PVC is Polyvinyl
chloride; PET is Polyethylene terephthalate; PUT is Polyurethanes; and PP&A fibres are Polyphthalamide fibres.)
What Are The Different Plastic Types Used For?
Read more about the different industries that use the most plastic in this guide.
On An Everyday Level
There is a good table that outlines what the different plastic are used for at https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/promo-university/different-types-of-plastic.htm
- PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate – durable and transparent, and used for example to make plastic bottles and trays
- HDPE – High density Polyethylene – light and stiff, and used for example in milk jugs, detergent bottles and sometimes plastic bags
- PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride – flexible but tough, and used in heavy duty packaging bags
- LDPE Low-density Polyethylene – flimsy and thin, and used for example to protect bread and other foods
- PP – Polypropylene – rigid, and used for example in bottles and containers.
- PS – Polystyrene – can be stiff or foamed, and used for example in packaging materials.
Acplasticsinc.com also does a good job of outlining the different types of plastic and their properties, uses and features at https://www.acplasticsinc.com/informationcenter/r/7-different-types-of-plastic-and-how-they-are-used
What Types Of Plastic Can Be Recycled?
What Can The Different Plastic Types Be Recycled For/Repurposed To Make?
Sizes Of Plastic
Plastic may also be categorised by size.
Sizes of plastic can be categorised as:
- Nano plastics, small micro plastics, large micro plastics, meso plastics, macro plastics
- Microplastics are plastic particles with a diameter typically less than 5 millimetres, or in same scales less than 4.75 millimetres. Even smaller particles, measuring less than 0.0001 millimetres (<0.1μm — micrometre) in diameter are often referred to as nanoplastics.
- Plastics that act as pollutants are categorized into micro-, meso-, or macro debris, based on size.
Classifying Plastic By It’s Potential To Do Harm Or Create Problems
Apart from the official types of plastic above, plastic items and other categories of plastic may be unofficially identified for their potential to do harm or create problems.
What About Bioplastic, & Other Plastic Alternatives Or New Types Of Plastic?
Bioplastics and plastic alternatives or new plastics fit in their own categories.
Bioplastics are plastic materials produced from renewable biomass sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, starch from corn, potatoes and sugar cane, and so on (en.wikipedia.org)
This is in comparison to regular plastic that is made from fossil fuel feedstock.
A common type of bioplastic is PLA bioplastic, but PHA bioplastics are also used in some applications (greenliving.lovetoknow.com, and en.wikipedia.org).
Bioplastics are not perfect though …
- … PLA does not decompose quickly in soil or seawater, [and] this can become a problem when littered (greenliving.lovetoknow.com)
- PLA is only compostable under the right conditions (dezeen.com)
- PLA … is not biodegradable, since under normal conditions they will break down just as slowly as conventional plastics (dezeen.com)
- PHAs are expensive to make as only limited quantities can be produced from bacteria (greenliving.lovetoknow.com)
One type of new plastic that is being developed is PDK plastic.
PDK plastic is being developed as a plastic that can be recycled infinitely and even upcycled, instead of the limited amount of times that current recyclable plastics can be recycled. Although, PDK plastic may have limited applications for use, such as textiles, 3D printing, and foams (theengineer.co.uk).