How to Identify Different Types of Plastic

Updated on April 23, 2020
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I am an online writer with over six years experience writing about plastics and other building materials

Plastic is an essential component of many everyday items.
Plastic is an essential component of many everyday items. | Source

Plastic is material consisting of any of a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that are malleable and can be molded into solid objects. Due to their low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility, and imperviousness to water, plastics are used in a multitude of products of different scale, including paper clips and spacecraft. Plastic is truly a remarkable material to work with, but it comes with its downsides as well. This article will cover all your major questions about plastic.

Questions This Article Will Answer

  1. What are the different types of plastic?
  2. How do I distinguish between different plastics?
  3. What are the pros and cons of using plastic?
  4. What does plastic do to the environment?
  5. Can plastic harm human health?
  6. What is plastic and how is it made?

Plastic is an essential component used in making many kinds of products. Some items made using plastics include: water bottles, combs, and beverage containers. When it comes to using plastics, knowing the differences between the types of plastic, as well as their SPI codes, will help you make more informed decisions.

1. What Are the Different Types of Plastic?

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  5. Polypropylene (PP)
  6. Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
  7. Miscellaneous plastics (includes: polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon)

Plastic types are distinguished and separated based on the chemical makeup and codes allocated to them by international agreement. Below is a table explaining each type of plastic.

7 Types of Plastic

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
The most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in fibres for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, thermoforming for manufacturing, and in combination with glass fibre for engineering resins.
2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
It's made from petroleum. It is sometimes called "alkathene" or "polythene" when used for pipes. With a high strength-to-density ratio, HDPE is used in the production of plastic bottles, corrosion-resistant piping, geomembranes, and plastic lumber.
3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is the world's third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, after polyethylene and polypropylene. The rigid form of PVC is used in construction for pipe and in profile applications such as doors and windows. It is also used in making bottles, non-food packaging, and cards (such as bank or membership cards)
4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPE is widely used for manufacturing various containers, dispensing bottles, wash bottles, tubing, plastic bags for computer components, and various molded laboratory equipment. Its most common use is in plastic bags.
5. Polypropylene (PP)
It is a white, mechanically rugged material and has a high chemical resistance. Polypropylene is the second-most widely produced commodity plastic (after polyethylene) and it is often used in packaging and labeling.
6. Polystyrene or Styrofoam (PS)
Uses include protective packaging (such as packing peanuts and CD and DVD cases), containers (such as "clamshells"), lids, bottles, trays, tumblers, disposable cutlery and in the making of models.
7. Miscellaneous plastics (includes: polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon)
These miscellaneous plastics are often used in medical tools and food storage.

2. How Different Plastics are Distinguished

Flame: A blue flame with a yellow tip would be indicative of the polyolefins and nylon. You might think, well how would you separate these two if their flame is the same? Remember from above, the polyolefins would float and nylon (PA) would sink.

A yellow flame with a green tip on contact shows PVC (Polyvinyl Choride), yellow with dark smoke could be PET or Polycarbonate, and yellow with sooty, dark, smoke could be polystyrene or ABS (the plastic housing of your computer monitor).

Burn: The polyolefins ignite quite readily. Be very careful if you are testing this type of plastic because molten plastic can drip and will leave an ugly burn if you make contact with it.

PVC (many garden hosepipes and certain piping for household plumbing, but it is becoming an unpopular plastic in modern times) and ABS will only ignite with moderate enthusiasm and will soften, but not release dripping "firebombs" of plastic; while PET also ignites moderately, but bubbles as it melts.

Smell: After you have applied a flame to the plastic piece to test it, and carefully observed the smoke and ignition potential, you can carefully waft some of the smoke towards your nose. WARNING: if you have already identified the plastic from other methods and particularly in where you suspect the plastic is PVC, do not smell the smoke.

If you must, and we advise against it where possible, a small whiff of the smoke will give you further clues as to the plastic identification code under which your suspect can be classified.

PET smells similar to burnt sugar (the odour reminds the author of eating candy-floss or sugar-candy in his childhood). PVC has an acrid smell like chlorine, so stay away from the smoke and gas given off by PVC. LDPE and HDPE smell like candle wax, while Polypropylene smells similar to candle wax, but with an element of paraffin to it. ABS and polystyrene both smell like styrene, but the ABS also has a faint rubbery smell to it.

Touch and Sound: The polyolefins are a rather tricky bunch of characters. They generally all float, have the same flame and dripping "firebomb" effect and even smell the same! This makes them rather tricky to tell apart, particularly when they are in the form of film. In other words, when they are packaging like packets or film wrapping.

Plastic packets can be made from LDPE, HDPE or PP. Now your senses of touch and hearing are drafted into play.

LDPE feels soft and smooth, like the bag Mom packs your sandwich into. Additionally, if you rub it together, it will make a soft swishing sound, as opposed to a crinkling, harsher sound.

HDPE feels harder and essentially, more crinkly. Many plastic shopping bags are manufactured from HDPE and the easiest way to distinguish them from LDPE bags is from the sound the make when you crinkle them in your hands. If the sound is soft and swishing (think of green leaves blowing in the trees), then you have identified LDPE; if the sound is crisper and crinkly (think of dry leaves being squished together), then you have HDPE. The two sounds are quite distinct.

Our final campaigner in this section is PP, also known as polyprop or polypropylene. Packets made of this plastic sound similar to HDPE and are crinkly. PP is generally used for packaging food, such as chocolate and chips wrappers, or the clear packets you might buy a gentleman's shirt in. It feels much firmer and stiffer, but the most important trick here, is that it does not stretch. It simply rips and tears without stretching at all.

Many plastic shopping bags (like the one above) are manufactured from HDPE.
Many plastic shopping bags (like the one above) are manufactured from HDPE. | Source

3. Pros and Cons of Using Plastic

You need less energy to transport and distribute it.
Small creatures like bacteria just can't eat them up or break them up, because plastic is non-biodegradable.
Can be recycled.
Often is not recycled.
It's resistant to corrosion and chemicals.
The elements do not fully break down plastics.
It can be coloured, melted, shaped, squashed, rolled into sheets or made into fibres.
They aren't as strong as metals like steel.
They make very strong fishing lines, glues, and paints.
When thrown on land it makes the soil less fertile. When thrown in water, it chokes our ponds, rivers and oceans and harms the sea life.
Manila harbour and NOT the Pacific trash island. This photo is often used as an indication of the severity of the "gyre" trash island, but this photo was taken in Manila harbour.
Manila harbour and NOT the Pacific trash island. This photo is often used as an indication of the severity of the "gyre" trash island, but this photo was taken in Manila harbour.

4. What Do Plastics Do to the Environment?

The huge floating island of plastic in the Pacific ocean comprises only the plastics that float. What about all those that sink? Where are they?

The easiest way to identify between broad groups of plastic is by establishing whether they float or sink. While there are exceptions, the polyolefins generally float in water and the rest, generally sink. The polyolefins include numbers 2, 4 and 5 from above (High Density Polyethylene (2), Low Density Polyethylene (4) and Polypropylene (5)). So as a rule of thumb, if a piece of the plastic floats, it will be one of these and otherwise, it will something else.

This sounds astonishing, but try this and you will see. Chop a manageable piece (possibly thumbnail-sized) off a milk bottle (HDPE) and it will float; conversely, a piece from a cool drink bottle (PET) will sink!

The frightening part of this, is that the massive floating island of plastic in the ocean, comprises primarily plastics that float and, as you can see from those the sink vs those that float, there are many types of plastic that sink and that we must presume are all lying on the bottom of our oceans.

There are many misconceptions about the floating "island of garbage" and the reality is very different from the public image of a giant pile of trash floating in the ocean.

5. Can Plastic Harm Human Health?

Plastic can have negative affects on human health. Toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and are found in the blood and tissue of nearly all people on earth. Over exposure to plastic is linked to certain cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and other ailments.

Negative Health Effects Linked to Plastics

Phthalates (DEHP): Phthalates cause endocrine disruption, linked to asthma, developmental and reproductive effects. Medical waste with PVC and pthalates is regularly incinerated, causing public health effects from the release of dioxins and mercury, including cancer, birth defects, hormonal changes, declining sperm counts, infertility, endometriosis, and immune system impairment.

Polycarbonate with Bisphenol A (#7): Scientists have linked very low doses of bisphenol A exposure to cancers, impaired immune function, early onset of puberty, obesity, diabetes, and hyperactivity, among other problems (Environment California).

Polyvinylchloride (#3 PVC): Polyvinylchloride Can cause cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction.

Plastic Can Also Affect Air Quality

Burning of plastic in the open air can lead to environmental pollution because of the release of poisonous chemicals. Polluted air, when inhaled by humans and animals, can affect their health and cause respiratory problems.

How to Avoid Using Plastic Products

  • Buy food in glass or metal containers and avoid polycarbonate drinking bottles with Bisphenol A.
  • Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.
  • Do not give young children plastic teethers or toys.
  • Use natural fiber clothing, bedding, and furniture.
  • Avoid all PVC and Styrene products.
  • Buy food in glass or metal containers.
  • Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap

What Is Plastic and How Is It Made?

Plastics are derived from natural and organic materials. These materials include cellulose, coal, natural gas and salt. They are, of course, also derived from crude oil. Crude oil is a complex mixture of thousands of compounds and needs to be processed before it can be used.

How Is Plastic Made?

The production of plastics begins with the distillation of crude oil in a refinery. This step separates the heavy crude into groups of lighter components, called fractions. Each fraction is a mixture of different hydrocarbon chains, which differ in terms of the size and structure of their molecules. One of these fractions that is created, naphtha, is the crucial compound for the production of plastics.

Processes for Producing Plastics

Two main processes are used to produce plastics. One process is called polymerisation and the other is called polycondensation. They both require specific catalysts. In a polymerisation reactor, monomers (ethylene and propylene) are linked together to form long polymer chains. Each polymer chain has its own properties, structure, and size. It all depends on the various types of basic monomers used.

The two main polymer families are:

  • Thermoplastics (which soften on heating and then harden again on cooling).

  • Thermosets (which never soften once they have been moulded).

Examples of Thermoplastics and Thermosets

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
Epoxide (EP)
Polycarbonate (PC)
Phenol-formaldehyde (PF)
Polyethylene (PE)
Polyurethane (PUR)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE)
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Unsaturated polyester resins (UP)
Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)
Polypropylene (PP)
Polystyrene (PS)
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)

Questions & Answers

  • I accidentally burnt the plastic handle of a pan. I am worried about the toxic effects this will have on my animals. What plastics are used for panhandles and does this type of plastic emit toxic fumes when burnt?

    Unfortunately, while we recycle plastic, we are not medical or veterinary care specialists so cannot give that type of advice. What we can say is that the handle is unlikely to be made of one of the more noxious plastic types like PVC, specifically because it is designed to be over heat. By way of example, PVC emits gases related to chlorine and those are dangerous, whereas the plastics used in kitchenware typically don't contain that. If your pet's exposure was limited, there should not be an issue but we suggest that you consult a vet if you are uncertain or if your pet is showing any signs of distress.

  • The use of water helps separate the plastics into their subcategories, can this be taken any further to separate similar plastics in those same subcategories? For instance, how would you separate HDPE, LDPE and Polypropylene if they are floating in the same pool of water?

    The short answer is that you cannot separate them once they are all floating in the same pool of water, as far as i know. It depends on your financial resources to separate them for recycling purposes. Perhaps if you can tell me what you intend to do, or what you process is, I could help you more.

  • How can Polycarboante and ABS plastic be separated from their combine mixture?

    Regrettably those are not plastics that we worked with so I cannot tell you how to separate those two. My immediate feeling is that they are not separable using any simple technique.

  • how to know the grade and manufacturer for HDPE?

    Sorry, I don't know the answer to your question.


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    • profile image

      Mary Adams 

      2 weeks ago

      This is useful information, thanks.

    • profile image


      5 months ago

      This is extremely helpful thank you

    • profile image


      6 months ago

      Is there any code which represent nylon ? Like polypropylene stands PP

    • profile image


      9 months ago

      What does the QR code on the packagings show?

      There are certain packets which do not have any number written on them, so how can we identify which number plastic they are?

    • profile image


      13 months ago

      How i differentiate Packing bag material HDPE or PP ?

    • profile image


      14 months ago

      Appreciate you reading my article. No 7 means it is not specifically 1-6 in isolation. So that means it is any other plastic type, but it also includes mixes of 1-6 and others.

    • profile image

      paul charbonneau 

      14 months ago

      does anybody have an answer for my question below

    • profile image

      paul charbonneau 

      14 months ago

      great information. what kind of plastic should be used for the top panels of Gazebos

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago

      HI PADMA

      Appreciate you reading my article. No 7 means it is not specifically 1-6 in isolation. So that means it is any other plastic type, but it also includes mixes of 1-6 and others.

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      thanks for the info. What do u do when the polymer is marked '7-others'. does it mean it is not 1,2,3,4,5,6? or does it mean it is a mix of different polymers

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      Good information. I'm trying to determine if I actually have HDPE or PP. I will try stretching it and see what it does.

    • profile image

      Keith Kropf 

      3 years ago

      What about identifying PLA? I want to be sure it is really PLA, which is compostable, before I start chucking it in the compost pile.

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks Carol, appreciate your vote and comment! Hope the hub is helpful...

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      Never had a clue about all the types of plastic. You did a thorough job on explaining all of this. Vote UP.


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