Plastic is everywhere in our daily lives. It makes life easier in many ways, from lightweight packaging that’s cheap to produce, to durable electronics and even furniture.
If you look around right now, chances are you’ll see several plastic products nearby.
And while recycling is something many of us were taught from an early age, we often find ourselves hovering over the bin asking, “Can I recycle this?”
Unfortunately, this poor understanding of plastic recycling best practices often leads to common items like plastic bags, milk jugs, and water bottles being sent to landfills instead of getting recycled into new plastic products.
Plastic Recycling Symbol & Number
Have you ever looked at the recycling symbol on a plastic product and noticed a number in the middle?
A product made of plastic is often stamped with a resin code, which is a number between 1 and 7 set inside the small triangle made of arrows. However, the presence of a resin code doesn’t necessarily mean that the product can be recycled.
The number corresponds to each of the different types of plastic, and not all plastic is recycled equally. Many plastic-based products cannot break down and thus cannot be recycled.
Often, if you see a number 1 or 2 inside the recycling symbol, that plastic is recyclable. However, it’s always best to check with your area’s recycling provider before placing items in your curbside bin.
While most United States municipalities take similar recyclables, there are some important differences that should be adhered to in order to avoid contaminating your local recycling stream. Find out how and what you can recycle at BeRecycled.org or contact your local recycling entity.
If you’re still stuck, many popular retailers like amazon have guides on their websites for how to recycle their packaging properly.
Symbol #1: PET or PETE (Recyclable)
PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common plastic. It is used to make bottles for soda, water, and other drinks. It’s also used to make cooking oil containers, plastic peanut butter jars, and containers for other popular food items, although these items are trickier to sort into your recycling.
Yogurt containers or butter tub lids may or may not be collected in your local community, so be sure to check before tossing them in your blue bin.
When it comes to PET plastic bottles – meaning the neck is skinnier than the body – recycling is easy. Whether large, small, wide or skinny, plastic bottles typically go into the recycling bin.
Recyclers usually want your bottle caps, too. But unless they’ve been twisted back into a bottle, they can fall through spaces in recycling equipment.
So, before tossing them into the blue bin, make sure caps are screwed on. It’s also important to squeeze the bottle or wash it to remove as much of the bottle’s original contents as possible.
You can also drop off PET bottles at bottle bill depots in the U.S. for a small refund, which incentivizes recycling. Most often, bottles that qualify will have a “Bottle Bill” code or “Deposit” code on the packaging.
If you don’t yet have a bottle bill or bottle deposit program in your local community, you can use this Bottle Bill Resource Guide to help get one started.
Symbol #2: HDPE (Recyclable)
HDPE (High-density polyethylene) plastics are also extremely common. They’re used to make milk jugs, shampoo bottles, cleaning product containers and detergent bottles, to name a few. These plastics are also widely recyclable in most areas.
For lotion bottles and other toiletry items with pumps, empty the contents, discard the pump, and recycle the bottle. For no-pump containers, simply empty the contents, re-screw the cap to keep it all together, and recycle.
While most people believe that every drop of liquid must be washed out in order for the item to be accepted by a recycling facility, this is a myth.
Plastics will be cleaned at the recycling facility. Just make sure to reduce waste by using all the products in the bottle, then lightly rinse and recycle them.
A few of the products that can be made from recycling HDPE include crates, film plastic, floor tiles, gardening tools, other non-food bottles, and even recycling bins!
Symbol #3: PVC (Not Recyclable)
PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) is a soft, flexible plastic used in a wide variety of household products like plastic tubing, kids’ toys, plastic trays, and furniture. Given its widespread use and relative toxicity, these plastics are often termed the “poison plastic” in the world of plastic products.
PVC plastic is the third most common type used in the U.S. and the U.K. market. Over 7 billion pounds are thrown away every year in America, and only 0.1 percent to 3 percent of it is recycled.
Worldwide, over 300 billion pounds of PVC are in use and will soon reach the end of its life and require disposal.
Perhaps worse than its inability to be recycled, PVC manufacturing creates a byproduct called dioxins.
According to the World Health Organization, dioxins are highly toxic and can lead to developmental and reproductive disease, immune system damage, and cancer. Because it is difficult to recycle, PVC is often burned in incinerators, which means this dioxin is emitted into the atmosphere.
Disposing of PVC into landfills can result in dioxin poisoning of landfills and groundwater.
Although PVC is very difficult to recycle, you should still check with your local curbside recycling collection office or recycling drop-off center to confirm.
Rarely, PVC can be recycled into lower quality products, such as binders, cables, carpet backing, park benches, pipes, speed bumps, and traffic cones.
Symbol #4: LDPE (Sometimes Recyclable)
LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) is the kind of transparent plastic you’ll find in things like shrink wrap, sandwich bags, produce bags, and squeezable ketchup bottles. It’s also used to make grocery bags and the bags that hold newspapers, and sliced bread loaves, among other things.
Since LDPE is oil resistant, chemical resistant, flexible, and transparent, it’s ideal for all kinds of applications. LDPE plastics can be recycled to become garbage can liners, shipping envelopes, plastic lumber, and more.
While LDPE plastic often can’t be recycled in curbside bins because it gets caught in recycling equipment, some supermarkets in the U.S. and Canada accept it for recycling. Check with your local grocery store to see if they have a program in your area.
If you can’t recycle these plastics using this method, look for a way to use them around your home so that you don’t send them to the landfill. Or better yet, try to avoid them entirely by opting for cloth or mesh reusable shopping bags and produce bags, and wrapping your leftovers in reusable wraps like these.
Symbol #5: PP (Sometimes Recyclable)
PP (Polypropylene) is another type of plastic used to make food containers. It’s also made into straw, rope, carpet, and bottle caps. With a high melting point, PP plastics are also great at preventing moisture transmission and are virtually inert in the face of things like acids and solvents. As such, you’ll find them used for medical tools and automotive parts.
Though perhaps less common than PET or HDPE plastics, knowing how to recycle these PP plastics is no less important. As always, check with your local curbside program if they accept PP plastics.
If not, mail-in and drop-off programs like this one exist. Search for a PP #5 drop-off program in your area – you may be surprised to see it’s more convenient than you thought!
Symbol #6: PS (Sometimes Recyclable)
PS (Polystyrene) plastic is commonly used to make disposable coffee cups, packing peanuts, coolers, and to-go food containers. Styrofoam products are made of PS plastic.
Notoriously hard to recycle and PS products are also unable to fully decompose in a landfill, making them exceptionally detrimental to the environment. As such, some states in the U.S. have banned, or are set to ban, the use of PS containers.
While you should avoid using Styrofoam products if possible, you may find yourself with an errant to-go container that you don’t want to end up in the trash. Check with your local curbside program, and if they don’t accept it in their blue bin, check out programs like this one working to find a home for foam.
Symbol #7: Other (Sometimes Recyclable)
Any type of plastic that doesn’t fit into one of the first six categories falls under this “other” heading. Products stamped with a seven are often made of multiple plastic types or out of other types of plastic that can’t easily be recycled.
If you have a plastic product without a number, and you’re not sure how to recycle it, it is likely in this category.
There are a few ways you can go about finding a recycling location for number seven plastics.
If you have a bio-based plastic, also known as polylactic acid (PLA) plastic, it should be sent to commercial composting facilities. Generally, these cannot be composted in your backyard compost bin. They should also not be mixed with other types of plastics in your recycling bin as they can be mistaken for things like HDPE or LDPE and contaminate recycling batches.
If your mystery plastic is not bio-based, check with your curbside recycling program or search online for a take-back program.
When in Doubt, Leave it Out
The tips provided above should make recycling plastics easier, but there still may be instances when you’re not sure how to recycle something. Of course, you can always check online, but when in doubt leave it out.
Plastic items like old video cassette tapes, garden hoses, CDs and bowling balls do more than take up space. They can damage expensive recycling equipment or contaminate an otherwise valuable stream of recyclable material and make it unusable.
Additionally, you should not bag up your recyclables before placing them in your bin because plastic bags can get stuck in the equipment.
Why is Recycling Plastic Important?
It can end up in gutters and storm drains
When plastic is sent to landfills – or worse, littered – it can end up in gutters, and storm drains, and eventually pollute our oceans. Experts say that by 2050 there may be more plastic than fish in the sea: a bleak future for our planet if we don’t make some changes in the present.
Plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade
Plastic can take hundreds of years to biodegrade, between 500 and 1,000 years for some types. This means it takes up space in the landfill, or often in nature, polluting the environment for an astronomical amount of time compared to the timeframe in which it is useful.
Recycling plastic can also conserve limited natural resources and energy
Because plastic is made from oil, the more plastic that is recycled and the less that is made from raw materials, the more oil is conserved.
Extracting and processing raw materials cause greenhouse gas emissions
Extracting and processing raw materials cause greenhouse gas emissions on a much larger scale than creating a recycled product requires. Recycling also cuts down the need for incinerators, along with the energy they require and the pollution they produce. Plus, growth in the recycling industry creates more jobs.
Creating a circular plastic economy
When we recycle plastic properly, it contributes to circularity. According to the U.S Chamber of Commerce Foundation, circularity is when products are designed to be used efficiently for as long as possible, but also designed to be recovered and recycled into new products at the end of their useful life.
Technology has advanced recently such that circularity is on the rise, but while we can’t always control how our products are made, we do control our recycling habits.
The recovery and proper sorting of these recyclable items by everyday people is a vital step toward creating a circular economy for plastic and beyond.
How is Plastic Recycled?
Now that you know how to recycle each type of plastic, have you ever wondered how the plastic is recycled? Before being recycled, plastics are sorted according to their resin type, either manually, using mechanized automated processes, or even by color.
Following sorting, there are two main ways to recycle plastic: mechanical recycling, where plastic is washed, ground, and melted, or chemical recycling, where plastic is broken down into monomers to form new polymers to be reused.
To use HDPE plastic as an example, the containers are ground into small chips of plastic called flakes. Then the flake is washed, ensuring any dirt or non-HDPE plastic is separated. One way different types of plastic are separated relates to their density.
When put in water, the lighter-weight plastic (such as HDPE) floats, and the heavier plastic sinks.
After separation, the flake is dried, melted, and extruded through a die, then cut into a pellet. This allows for a uniform raw material to be put back into a new product.
Through a process called blow molding, the pellet can be used by manufacturers to make new plastic products.
Depending on the kind of plastic, recycling might give a product new life as fiber for clothing, carpeting, car parts, or strapping. Or it could become a cutting board, a durable outdoor deck, a bench, plastic lumber, playground equipment, or maybe even a recycling bin.
BeRecycled.org has a detailed infographic on their site to walk you through the recycling process for many common recyclable items.
If Possible, Avoid Single-use Plastics Entirely
Despite all you’ve just learned, perhaps the best way to help the environment is by using less single-use plastic.
While it’s clear that plastic is everywhere and relatively difficult to avoid entirely, a few simple changes in behavior can cut down on your personal footprint significantly.
Bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, refusing to take a plastic straw for your iced coffee, and choosing to purchase items packaged in paper or cloth are just a few ways to help.
Plastic-free alternatives to common household items are on the rise, with many companies realizing that consumers are more discerning about their environmental footprint than ever before.
You can buy common household items without all that added paper from companies like the Package Free Shop, Grove Collaborative, or Thrive Market. Web sites like Earthday.org offer guides for making your shower plastic-free without breaking the bank or making your daily hygiene ocean-friendly.
Just a few changes in lifestyle per person, along with proper recycling etiquette, can go a long way toward saving our planet. So, what are you waiting for?
Related content: How to Reduce Plastic Use
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