recycling plastics by the numbers

Friday, September 16, 2011

One, two, buckle my shoe
Three, four, shut the door
Five, six, you can’t recycle this!

When it comes to recycling plastics, the numbers can sometimes be misleading or confusing.  Since plastics are everywhere, it’s important to be able to quickly decipher how & where to recycle your plastic bread bag, yogurt cup or ketchup bottle!

Just because there are chasing arrows on a package, does not mean that it can be recycled (it’s misleading and unfortunate).  The best we can do is to try to avoid plastics that are not easy to recycle (or can’t be recycled at all) and get vocal to companies to put their products in greener and more sustainable packaging!

Here’s how to decode the plastic numbers:

#1 (a.k.a. polyethylene terephthalate or PET)

Commonly used in: water & soda bottles, food bottles such as salad dressing, peanut butter, oils

Recycling:  Easy to recycle!  Most recycling centers and programs accept #1

Interesting fact:  Although it is one of the easiest items to recycle, it has a recycling rate of only 20%!  If it gets recycled, it can be made into fibers (a reusable tote bag!), carpet or new containers

#2 (a.k.a. high density polyethylene or HDPE)

Commonly used in:  Milk and juice containers, cleaning products (detergents, soaps, shampoo bottles), some plastic bags, some yogurt cups, cereal box liners

Recycling:  Easy to recycle!

Interesting fact:  #2 plastics can be made into fencing, recycling containers (yeah!), lumber and floor tiles

#3 (a.k.a. polyvinyl chloride V or PVC)

Commonly used in:  Cleaning detergent bottles, food packaging, shrink wrap, siding, windows, piping

Recycling:  Not easy!  Check to see if items can be recycled at a location near you.

Interesting fact:  Most t-shirts are printed with plastisol inks.  Plastisol inks are manufactured by using a liquefied form of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. The chlorine-based chemicals that are formed when this product is manufactured react with other chemicals to create dioxins, PCBs and other toxic compounds.

#4 (a.k.a. low density polyethylene LDPE)

Commonly used in:  bread bags, frozen food, squeezable bottles (mustards, ketchup), shopping & dry cleaning bags, carpet, clothing

Recycling:  Somewhat easy to recycle.  Some curbside programs do not accept #4 plastics (call your recycling centers and ask for them to be more proactive with recycling items!)

Interesting fact:  Americans use enough low density polyethylene LDPE plastic every year to shrink wrap the state of TEXAS. 

#5 (a.k.a. polypropylene PP)

Commonly used in:  straws, medicine bottles, some squeezy bottles (syrup, ketchup), some yogurt cups

Recycling:  Moderately easy.  More and more recycling centers and programs are accepting #5 plastics

Interesting fact:  Polypropylene plastics in the US make up 2.1% of the plastic bottle market.  When recycled, the plastic is made into rakes, bike racks and ice scrapers

#6 (a.k.a. polystyrene)

Commonly used in:  disposable cups, plates, some plastic cutlery, carry out containers, compact disc cases

Recycling:  Not easy!  More and more recycling centers are starting to accept #6 plastics.  Call your curbside program and see if they accept. will be able to give you the nearest location for recycling #6 plastics

Interesting fact:  Polystyrene has been found to leach styrene (a neurotoxin and possible human carcinogen) and has been banned in Portland and San Francisco

#7 (a.k.a. other)

Commonly used in:  Plastic #7 is a catch-all and is hard to classify (and recycle).  Typically it is assigned to any plastic that does no fit into one of the other categories  

Recycling:  Typically can not be recycled in mass.  Check to see if you can recycle your item.

Interesting fact:  Plastic #7 also includes the bio-based plastics that are plant-based (corn, potato or sugar) biodegradable plastics (like polyactic acid PLA)

Got any plastic recycling thoughts?  Tell us about them :)

1 comment:

Shannon Marie said...

I am so glad you posted this. It's a great reminder of what we use can be recycled, and that so much more recycling can be done! When we moved into a different county it was the first thing I looked up, what they accepted for recycling. Most county or city websites will have a list of what they will take.

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