Know Your Plastics and Understand that Recycling isn’t the Final Answer

Through my zero-waste journey I have tried to research every aspect of a product before buying it. What I have realized is that we are being fed quite a bit of green-washing when it comes to recycling. My mom is a religious recycler and was quite shocked to find out that not all plastic was recyclable. One-use plastics have flooded the South African market, led by companies such as Woolworths who align themselves with having environmental ethics when it comes to packaging. There are many aspects of plastics you need to understand when you say you support recycling. These are the things you need to look at:

  1. The number within the recycle triangle
  2. Whether it’s recycled in your province or country
  3. Will I be able to clean this plastic? Recyclers send plastic to landfill if it’s not been cleaned.
  4. Are you buying recycled products to support the reason for recycling?



The following info was taken from and




Clear, tough, solvent resistant, barrier to gas and moisture, softens at 80°

Uses: Soft drink and water bottles, salad domes, biscuit trays, salad dressing and containers

PET is a favourite of soft drink manufacturers. Most used PET ends up in landfill sites in this country. Collectors gather the PET from there because they can earn a small amount of money for it.

PET is recycled into …
Pillow and sleeping bag filling, clothing, soft drink bottles, carpeting, building insulation. PET is also recycled in geotextiles for road stabilisation and dam linings, and Plastiwood.




Hard to semi-flexible, resistant to chemicals and moisture, waxy surface, opaque, softens at 75°C, easily coloured, processed and formed

Uses: Shopping bags, freezer bags, milk bottles, ice cream containers, juice bottles, shampoo, chemical and detergent bottles, buckets, rigid agricultural pipe, crates, etc.

HDPE is recycled into …
Recycling bins, compost bins, buckets, detergent containers, posts, fencing, pipes, plastic timber, etc.


PVC Pipes


PVC-U Strong, tough, can be clear, can be solvent welded, softens at 80°C

PVC -P Flexible, clear, elastic, can be solvent welded

Uses: Cosmetic containers, electrical conduit, plumbing pipes and fittings, blister packs, wall cladding, roof sheeting, bottles, garden hose, shoe soles, cable sheathing, blood bags and tubing

PVC has been described as a “difficult” plastic. Its use is being phased out – in many cases it is being replaced by PET. Try to avoid buying products with PVC packaging, but if you can’t avoid it, it is unlikely to be recycled so the Plastics Federation of SA’s advice is to just throw it away with ordinary rubbish.



Soft, flexible, waxy surface, translucent, softens at 70°C, scratches easily

Uses: Cling wrap, garbage bags, squeeze bottles, irrigation tubing, mulch film, refuse bags, frozen veggie bags, building film

LDPE is recycled into …
Bin liners, pallet sheets, irrigation piping, a variety of containers, and construction and building film.




Hard but still flexible, waxy surface, softens at 140°C, translucent, withstands solvents, versatile.

Uses: Bottles and ice cream tubs, potato chip bags, straws, microwave dishes, kettles, garden furniture, lunch boxes, packaging tape and bottle caps.

PP is recycled into …
Pegs, bins, pipes, pallet sheets, oil funnels, car battery cases and trays.

Where to take it for recycling

Drop-off points at Pikitup’s garden centres.


Clear, glassy, rigid, opaque, semi-tough, softens at 95°C. Affected by fat, acids and solvents, but resistant to alkalis, salt solutions. Low water absorption, when not pigmented is clear, is odour

and taste free. Special types of PS are available for special applications.

Uses: CD cases, plastic cutlery, imitation glassware, low cost brittle toys, video cases, foamed polystyrene cups, takeaway clamshells, foamed meat trays, protective packaging and building and food insulation.

There are two kinds of polystyrene: high-impact, from which products like coathangers and yoghurt cups are made, and expanded polystyrene, from which meat and vegetable trays are made.

PS is recycled into …
Coat hangers, coasters, white ware components, stationery trays and accessories, picture frames, seed trays, building products, curtain rails, finials, skirting boards, cornices and stationery (eg, rulers). Demand far outstrips supply in South Africa.



Includes all resins and multimaterials (e.g. laminates). Properties dependent on plastic or combination of plastics.

Uses: Automotive and appliance components, computers, electronics, cooler bottles, packaging, etc.

This is not the type of plastic you’re likely to recycle at home. And, according to the Plastic Federation of SA, it is not recycled in South Africa at the moment, so they advise to put it in the dustbin.



According to these are the plastics they are able to recycle so far:

1 PET: polyethylene terephthalate
2 HDPE: high-density polyethylene
4 LDPE: low-density polyethylene (Select places, I have not come across a place that recycles these)
5 PP: polypropylene (Also, have not come across a place that recycles this type of plastic)

Please keep in mind that not all bottles labelled PET are recyclable in the first place.

  • Chip bags
  • Tubes (toothpaste, lotion, tomato paste, etc)
  • Clingwrap
  • Plastic bags (produce bags, carry bags, liners, etc)



There are many social projects turned businesses that have created a market for recycled products such as bags, sunglasses, furniture, etc. Supporting them will not only stimulate our economy and the process of recycling or upcycling discarded items, but most of these businesses are run by locals who have no other means of supporting themselves if not through entrepreneurship. They are easy to find online. Here are a few links to get you started.


Why Do I Say Recycling Isn’t the Answer?

In South Africa we definitely have a waste problem, especially when it comes to one-use plastics. Currently we do not recycle the majority of our plastics (even those that can be recycled) and send everything to landfill. Problem is the landfills are filling up, Cape Town is almost at capacity, and in the rural areas garbage fills and clogs the storm drains… with heavy rain all of this waste is washed out to the ocean.

In addition, recycling plastics require a lot of resources and if the industry of recycled material is not supported by the consumer (buying recycled/ upcycled products) financially the entire reason for recycling is redundant. Currently just over 20% of Cape Town plastics are being recycled, this definitely needs to be improved.

What Can You Do as a Consumer?

  • Avoid one-use plastics
  • Avoid unrecyclable plastics at all
  • Avoid plastics that can’t be cleaned
  • Look for alternative/ no packaging when shopping
  • Buy recycled/upcycled products
  • Use reusable bags, coffee cups, straws, etc.

I totally understand (as a consumer myself) that some plastics are unavoidable, such as plastic windows in carboard boxes of pasta (why? Really…) and I do have an answer for that…. Eco-bricks. For more info on that visit

I believe we underestimate the power we have as a consumer, we create the demand after all? Why not create a demand for more environmental packaging options and steer the market to more sustainable and eco-conscious methods? The power is in your hands.

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