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How often do you turn over plastic bottles, containers or bags to see what recycling symbol is hiding at the bottom? If you’re anything like most people, the answer is rarely, if ever. Most of us assume that we can toss plastic waste right into the recycling bin, letting others sort it out once it’s picked up on trash day.
But plastic is tricky to recycle. Some plastics have to be handled differently; others can’t be recycled at all. Those little-examined symbols are your guide to determining what can actually be recycled. Every piece of plastic packaging bears a small triangle with a number in the center on its label or its base. And that triangle tells you everything you need to know.
It’s time to stop tossing everything into the same recycling bin. We’ve got your guide to each of the recycling symbols – and numbers – on different kinds of plastic items. Here’s what they mean and how to handle them.
Plastic #1: PET or PETE
Any plastic that’s labeled with #1 is a PET or PETE plastic. That means it’s a plastic made out of polyethylene terephthalate – one of the most common kinds of plastics.
PET or PETE plastics are found in single-use beverage bottles, like soft drink and water bottles. You’ll also find it in your fridge or pantry in the form of ketchup or salad dressing bottles, nut butter containers (like a plastic jar of peanut butter) and vegetable oil containers. It’s used to make detergent bottles and cleaning chemical containers too.
This type of plastic is so popular because it’s lightweight, flexible and cheap for companies to produce. And it’s also easy to recycle.
Any #1 plastic can be recycled right at home. Most curbside recycling programs will pick up this type of plastic, and it can be tossed right into your recycling bin.
Plastic #2: HDPE
Plastics labeled with the number 2 or the acronym HDPE are made of plastic that’s formally known as high density polyethylene, another easily recyclable material.
And, like PET or PETE plastic, HDPE plastics are super common. They’re what your milk and water jugs are made out of; you’ll also find them in laundry detergent containers, shampoo bottles and auto oil containers. Some plastic bags also contain HDPE. These plastics can be clear or colored, thin or a bit thick.
When you’re ready to recycle any #2 plastics, you can put most of these items right into your recycling bin for curbside pickup. You’ll want to check with your local recycling regulations, though, as regional rules can vary. Some cities may only allow containers with necks; others will welcome plastic bags and wraps.
If you can’t recycle #2 HDPE plastic bags in your home recycling bin, check with your local stores. Many, like chain grocery stores, Target and Walmart, will recycle the bags for you if you drop them off in-store.
Plastic #3: PVC or V
Another common plastic recycling symbol you’ll see is #3, which might also be labeled PVC or V. These are plastics made with polyvinyl chloride or vinyl.
While vinyl is usually found in big items like pipes, flooring, home siding and door or window frames, PVC is pretty common. You’ll find the #3 recycling symbol on items like cling wrap or other types of clear food packaging. Some cleaning products use PVC in their packaging too, like window cleaning solutions, and so do some cooking oils and squeezable condiment bottles. And it’s also commonly found in shower curtains.
But PVC and V products aren’t so easy to recycle. This kind of plastic features a lot of additives, and when it’s disposed of it can create harmful substances like dioxins, lead and chlorine. As a result, it’s considered one of the least-recyclable plastics.
In order to properly and safely dispose of these items, you’ll need to contact your local recycling agency. Some items may need to go to a local collection center. Others may be better off in the trash.
Plastic #4: LDPE
Plastic bags are one of the most environmentally frustrating products. Until recently, they were many retailers’ go-to choice for packing up customers’ items. And though they’ve fallen out of fashion, they’re still around.
Plastic bags and other kinds of thin, flimsy plastic materials are usually labeled with the #4 or LDPE recycling label. They’re made from low density polyethylene, which is flexible and makes for a convenient packaging. You’ll find #4 plastics wrapped around loaves of bread and inside the boxes of frozen foods. It’s also used to make most plastic wraps – and it’s what makes up the plastic bags dry cleaners use.
#4 LDPE plastics haven’t been recycled in the past, but it’s becoming increasingly easier to do so now. Your local recycling program may welcome them in your home recycling bin. It’s a good idea to check your city’s recycling guidelines before tossing this kind of plastic into your recycling pile, though.
When it comes to plastic bags, your best course of action is to take them to a local store. They’ll handle the recycling for you.
Plastic #5: PP
Have you been throwing your empty yogurt or sour cream containers into the recycling bin? If they bear a #5 or PP plastic recycling symbol, you might be recycling them incorrectly.
The #5 or PP symbol means a plastic item is made with polypropylene. This plastic is difficult to recycle, and it’s pretty inconsistent in its quality. Yogurt containers and others like them are usually made with #5 plastic, along with some syrup and deli soup containers. You’ll also find any cloudy-looking plastics, like baby bottles and straws, are made from this type of material.
Although it’s a tricky plastic to recycle and reuse, it is welcome in some curbside recycling programs. Check with your local regulations – in some cities, these plastics are better off in the trash.
Plastic #6: PS
You know #6 plastic: it’s Styrofoam. This airy, lightweight material is used to create rigid or slightly flexible foam material, which makes up food containers, packaging materials, insulation and even disposable cutlery. It’s also used in meat trays, some disposable plates and cups and some aspirin bottles.
#6 plastics, which can also be labeled PS for polystyrene, are falling out of favor. They’ve long been terrible for the environment, and they’re harmful for humans too. Made with styrene, this kind of plastic material is considered a likely carcinogen. It’s also unable to be recycled because it can’t be made into new products.
If you come across a #6 label, it unfortunately must go into thetrash. Very few curbside recycling programs will accept any materials made of PS.
Plastic #7: Other or mixed
Any plastic labeled with a #7 symbol or a written “mixed” or “other” note is considered a mixed resin plastic. This recycling category is for all other kinds of plastics, or for different types of plastics mixed together into a single product. It’s also where plastics that don’t fit into categories #1 through #6 end up.
#7 plastics include polycarbonates, the hard plastic that’s known to leach bisphenol A (BPA). It’s found in lids, electronics, baby bottles, water jugs, children’s sippy cups, clear plastic cutlery, and even in some sport water bottles. And this kind of plastic is difficult to recycle.
If you encounter an item with the #7 symbol, odds are you’ll have to throw it in the trash. Most recycling programs don’t accept other or mixed plastics, especially if they’re made from polycarbonate. If you do put this kind of plastic in your bin, it’ll get thrown out anyway once your waste reaches the sorting stage.
Try these tips to make recycling plastic easier
Knowing which plastics can be recycled and which you can send along to your local curbside recycling program will ensure you’re recycling as much as possible. But other little mistakes or unknowns can unexpectedly result in more of your recycled plastics getting sent to the local landfill.
Give these tips a try to make sure you’re recycling as responsibly as possible.
Recycling requirements vary from city to city
As we’ve mentioned a few times above, it’s always a good idea to get familiar with your city’s recycling requirements. There is no federal recycling program in the US, so cities can set their own individual rules. Some curbside recycling programs welcome all kinds of plastics and will handle the sorting and disposal for you. Others are more stringent, and you may only be able to recycle the most common plastic types – like plastics labeled #1 or #2.
And those regulations can change over time. Cities will adopt new recycling practices as materials become more or less recyclable, or more or less common. Most cities keep their latest recycling symbols and guidelines right on their websites, so check in every so often.
Always rinse your plastics clean
Are you guilty of tossing plastic containers into your recycling bin without rinsing them first? If so, your waste likely can’t be recycled.
Approximately 25 percent of all recyclable material in the US gets contaminated by food waste. Any plastic that contains food residues on or in it has to be thrown out; even the smallest bit of left-behind food can force sorters to toss items into the trash.
Most of this extra waste could easily be avoided – all you have to do is rinse off any residue before putting your plastic into the recycling bin. You don’t have to go through the trouble of actually washing your containers, but you do need to thoroughly rinse them with water.
Never put your recyclable materials in a plastic trash bag
Here’s a mistake you’re probably making right now: don’t toss your plastic recyclables into a plastic trash bag.
While it’s common (and easy) to put your recyclables into a trash bag so you can carry that bag right outside for pickup, it’s actually a practice that’s bad for the recycling process. Plastic bags tend to cause problems; they get jammed in recycling processing equipment, for example, which can result in damage. Plus, plastic trash bags can’t be recycled themselves, so you’re only contributing to more plastic waste if you use them.
Skip the bag altogether and keep your plastic recyclables in a separate bin or a reusable bag. Then, you can empty that into your larger curbside container.
The higher the number, the less recyclable it is
If you don’t want to try to recall all of these recycling guidelines every time you’re about to toss a piece of plastic into your recycling bin, here’s an easy tip. Plastics with a higher number inside the little recycling triangle symbol are more likely suited for the trash.
In general, higher numbers equal plastics that are tougher to recycle. While #1 and #2 plastics are almost universally recyclable at any recycling facility, #3 and up are more challenging. So, when you’re unsure, recycle lower numbers over higher numbers.
Avoid purchasing plastic altogether
While recycling is important, it’s even more critical that you try to avoid buying plastic altogether. Approximately 91 percent of all plastic doesn’t actually get recycled – meaning just 9 percent actually gets reused or repurposed.
The most sustainable course of action is to avoid plastic. You’ll make more of an impact by retraining yourself and building new, better habits. Instead of choosing milk sold in plastic jugs, look for cardboard cartons. Pick up condiments in glass containers rather than plastic. Opt for reusable items instead of single-use plastic ones. Skip the plastic wrap and plastic snack bags, choosing reusable beeswax or silicone alternatives instead.
In situations where you have no choice but plastic, try to opt for the most recyclable plastics: #1 and #2. Avoid higher-numbered plastics as much as possible. That way, you know the plastic you’re using can, and likely will, be recycled.
Ready to make even more sustainable changes and up your eco-friendly actions? Discover more ways to cut back on waste and become less reliant on plastics: