Discussions about plastics and recycling can be filled with industry acronyms and technical language. Below you’ll find a list of commonly used terms and their definitions to aid your understanding.
3D printer filament:The (often) plastic feedstock, or thread, used in many 3D printers.
Advanced recycling:Advanced plastics recycling, also called chemical recycling, refers to several different technologies that convert post-use plastics into their original building blocks, specialty polymers, feedstocks for new plastics, fuels, waxes, and other valuable products.
Biobased:Materials derived from plants and other organisms. Biobased plastics are not necessarily biodegradable. For example, polyethylene made from plants retains the basic properties of polyethylene made from other sources of hydrocarbons.
Biodegradable:The ability of a material to undergo a chemical process where microorganisms in the environment convert it into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide and compost. Biodegradable plastics are not necessarily biobased. Biodegradable plastics can be made from traditional or plant-based sources.
Circular economy:An economic system based on designing the entire lifecycle of products and conserving product resources so they can be reused or recycled in a way that significantly reduces waste and pollution.
Circularity:Circularity is the ability to more efficiently use plastic (or any resource) by keeping material in use for as long as possible, getting the most we can from them during use, and then recovering them to make new products.
Compostable:A product capable of degrading into natural elements in a compost environment, leaving no toxicity in the soil.
Feedstock:Any raw material that can be used to supply or fuel an industrial process or a machine.
Flexible plastic packaging (FPP):Any package or part of a package whose shape can be readily changed. Flexible packaging includes, but is not limited to, bags, pouches, liners and wraps that utilize plastic or film.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE):High-density polyethylene, also known as HDPE, is a strong and durable plastic used to make common items like jugs and bottles for short-term storage. Its toughness makes it difficult to tear and helps it resist bursting. Recycled HDPE plastic is used to make many products such as toys, soda bottles, trash cans, traffic cones and plastic “lumber” for playgrounds, decks and outdoor furniture. To determine if a container is made from HDPE, look for a number 2 inside the three-arrow recycling symbol.
Informal recycling sector:Typically refers to recycling efforts by an individual or group of individuals done outside a formal municipal recycling system; this is common in many developing countries.
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE):Low-density polyethylene (LDPE, #4) is a soft, flexible, lightweight plastic material. It’s used to make a wide variety of items, most commonly packaging and plastic bags.
Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF):A program formed in 2015 by a coalition of recycling advocates to examine how existing recycling processes could be utilized to capture flexible plastic packaging (FPP).
Mechanical recycling:A process by which waste materials are turned into raw materials without changing the basic structure of the material.
Microplastic:Microplastics and microfibers are terms used to describe small pieces of plastic in the environment generally smaller than the size of a sesame seed.
Multilayer Packaging:Multilayer packaging consists of up to 11 individual, ultra-thin layers, making it considerably lighter and thinner than comparable packaging. At least one of the layers can be plastic, but other layers can be paper or aluminum foil. It is typically flexible and used in food packaging because it keeps food fresh longer and is lighter than compared materials, reducing cost and impact of transporting food to markets.
PET:Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a strong, durable and recyclable material that is used for soda bottles, water bottles and food jars.
Plastic film:Plastic film is soft and flexible packaging such as grocery, bread, zip-top and dry-cleaning bags. It’s also the wrap around many products including paper plates, napkins, bathroom tissue, diapers, and more. Bubble wrap, air pillows and bubble wrap shipping envelopes are made from the same kind of plastic and can be recycled as well. Plastic film can be recycled at more than 18,000 drop-off locations in the United States and Canada, including many grocery stories.
Plastics value chain:The process or activities of adding value to plastic, including everything from production and marketing to reuse and recycling.
Polyethylene:Also known as PE and used in polyethylene terephthalate (PET, #1), high-density polyethylene (HDPE, #2) and low-density polyethylene (LDPE, #4), is used to make milk jugs, juice containers, water bottles, detergent bottles, bread bags, squeezable bottles and even plumbing pipes and other more durable plastic products meant to be used for years.
Polypropylene:Polypropylene, also known as PP or by the recycling #5, is a food-safe plastic. It’s used to hold all kinds of foods, beverages and medications. It can also be used to make carpeting, roof membranes and fabric.
Post-Consumer-Recycled (PCR) Plastic:This is plastic that has been made into a product, used and recycled, collected, cleaned, reprocessed and remade into something new. Products made from PCR plastic contribute to a circular economy as they close the loop and divert plastic products from landfills by instead allowing them to be recycled into feedstock to create something else.
Pyrolysis:In pyrolysis, plastics are heated to between 400 degrees Celsius and 600 degrees Celsius in the absence of oxygen. During this process, polymers (such as polyethylene, polypropylene and mixed plastic streams) are broken down into hydrocarbons, which can then be processed further into chemicals and other polymers indistinguishable from virgin materials.
Recycled plastic feedstock:Materials made from recycled plastics that can be used to supply or fuel an industrial process or a machine.
Recycling:The process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects.
Resin:An organic substance, sometimes plant-based but generally synthetic, that is used as a base material for the manufacture of some plastics.
rFlex:A material primarily consisting of plastic materials like shopping bags, storage bags and shrink wrap, along with multilayered packaging and fiber materials. It can be used to make lumber, pallets and more.
rPET:rPET stands for recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or recycled PET. PET is a strong, durable and recyclable material that is used for soda bottles, water bottles and food jars, while rPET can be made into such products as blankets, insulation, car parts, shoes and more.
Single-use plastic:Any plastic that is only used once and not returned to the value chain.
Virgin plastic:Any plastic that has never been used or processed before and has no recycled content.
Waste pickers:An individual or group of individuals that collects recyclable materials as part of the “informal recycling sector,” typically done in the absence of effective formal recycling systems in developing countries.
Waste to energy:An alternative to landfilling, waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities use combustion to recover the energy inherent in used or discarded items. The facilities create power that is used by local utilities, homes, offices, hospitals, manufacturing, and others.