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Recycling is a powerful tool in our quest for a more sustainable future. By giving new life to materials that would otherwise end up in landfills, we reduce waste, conserve resources, and mitigate the environmental impact of our consumption.
However, not all recyclable materials are created equal, and understanding the recycling symbols and numbers can be confusing.
In this in-depth guide, we will demystify the recycling process and delve into the world of recycling by the number. Each plastic item is marked with a recycling symbol and a number, known as the resin identification code, which indicates the type of plastic it is made from.
By understanding these numbers, you can make informed decisions about recycling and ensure that your efforts are both effective and efficient.
So, let’s embark on this recycling journey together and learn how to recycle by the number, empowering ourselves to make a positive impact on our planet.
And just to show you that the benefits of recycling are huge, in 1980, recycling and composting kept 14.5 million tons of trash from being thrown in landfills and incinerators in the U.S., and by 2013, that number reached 87.2 million tons.
So if you can’t reduce your waste, and you’ve already reused as much as you could, recycling is the next best thing. Now, let’s get into the numbers.
Note: As you may have noticed, the numbers range from 1 to 7, with 1 being the easiest to recycle and number 7 being so difficult to recycle that it’s typically not even recycled at all. This is because there are actually many different types of plastic and they don’t all act the same.
#1 PET or PETE
This is the most common symbol for single-use plastic and is primarily found in food and drink packaging (like single-use plastic water bottles). PETE is inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to recycle.
Found in: Soft drinks, water, ketchup, beer bottles, mouthwash, peanut butter containers, salad dressing, vegetable oil containers, shampoo, and liquid hand soap packaging.
How to Recycle: PETE can be picked up through most curbside recycling programs after it’s emptied and rinsed out. Caps should be thrown in the trash since they’re made of a different plastic unless your city/town says it’s okay to recycle them. You don’t need to remove the bottle labels because the recycling process separates them for you.
Recycled Into: Polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, bottles, rope, automotive parts, construction materials, and food containers.
HDPE is one of the most versatile plastics with many different uses. It’s known for its high strength-to-density ratio, making it lightweight but durable. It’s also easy to recycle and may even be able to be recycled at least 10 times.
Found in: Milk jugs, juice bottles, bleach, detergent and other household cleaner bottles, shampoo bottles, some thicker trash and shopping bags, motor oil bottles, butter and yogurt tubs, and cereal box liners.
How to Recycle: HDPE can be picked up through most curbside recycling programs, although some only allow containers with necks. Flimsy plastic (plastic wrap, grocery bags, etc.) can’t be recycled, but some stores will collect them.
Recycled Into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fencing, and shampoo bottles.
Related: How To Recycle: A Step-By-Step Guide
#3 PVC or V (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC is rigid and weathers well, so they’re commonly used for things like piping, medical equipment, and thicker plastic gloves. This type of plastic is strong, durable, flexible, and cheap, making it ideal for tons of different products and packaging.
Chlorine is part of PVC so it can result in the release of highly dangerous dioxins during manufacturing. Never burn PVC because it releases dangerous toxins.
Found in: Shampoo and cooking oil bottles, blister packaging, wire jacketing, siding, window frames, piping, gutters, flooring, and fencing.
How to Recycle: PVC can rarely be recycled because of the harmful chemicals that are poisonous to humans, but some plastic lumber makers accept it. If you need to dispose of either material, ask your local waste management to see if you should put it in the trash or drop it off at a collection center.
Recycled Into: Decks, paneling, mud flaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, and mats.
LDPE is a flexible plastic with many different purposes. It hasn’t been accepted through most recycling programs because it’s challenging to recycle.
Found in: Squeezable bottles, bread, frozen food packaging, dry cleaning, shopping bags, tote bags, clothing, and furniture.
How to Recycle: It’s not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities may accept it so check in your area. Anything made with it (like toothpaste tubes) should be thrown in the trash. As I mentioned earlier, shopping bags can be recycled in some stores, so check in your area.
Recycled into: Trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, and floor tiles.
#5 PP (polypropylene)
PP is a rigid and inflexible plastic, making it resistant to moisture, grease, and chemicals. It has a very high melting point, so it’s often used for containers that are going to hold hot liquid.
Found in: Some yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, kitchen containers, carpets, rope, syrup and medicine bottles, caps, and straws.
Recycled in: PP can be recycled through some curbside programs but isn’t as widely accepted since China stopped accepting America’s recyclable waste in 2018. Check to see if it’s recyclable for curbside pickup in your area, and don’t forget to make sure there’s no food left inside and that it’s rinsed and dried before recycling. It’s best to throw loose caps into the garbage since they easily slip through screens during recycling and end up as trash anyway.
Recycled into: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscapes borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, and trays.
PS is made into rigid or foam products (mostly known as styrofoam) because it’s lightweight and mainly disposed of after a single use. It’s made by combining different kinds of styrene, which is a building block chemical. Styrene monomer (a type of molecule) and styrene oxide can leach into foods and, as far as we know, are probable human carcinogens.
It also makes up about 35% of waste in the U.S. and can take up to a million years to decompose and may actually never decompose, staying in a landfill forever. That being said, please do your best to try to avoid this type of product.
Found in: Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carryout containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc cases, packing peanuts, and dinnerware.
How to Recycle: Not many curbside recycling programs accept PS, but you can look to see if there are any businesses near you that take them. Most places don’t accept them in foam form because they are 98% air. Since foam products tend to break apart into smaller pieces, you should place them in a bag, squeeze the air out, and tie it up before putting them in the trash to prevent pieces from being scattered around.
Recycled Into: When they can be recycled, they’re recycled into insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packaging, and carry-out containers.
#7 OTHER or MISCELLANEOUS
All the other wide variety of plastic resins that don’t fit into the previous categories are lumped into this one. This includes fiberglass, polycarbonate, plexiglass, nylon, acrylic fabrics, and more. Some plastics like polycarbonate are shown to be hormone disruptors and contain BPA and LEXAN, which are both very harmful to human health if not properly disposed of.
Found in: Three and five-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, specific food containers, nylon, baby bottles, and sports equipment.
Recycle it: It’s traditionally not recycled because of the harmful plastics. The best option is to double-check with your municipality’s website for specific instructions on disposing of them.
Recycled Into: When recycled, it’s made into plastic lumber and custom-made products.
Well, I know that was A LOT of information, but nevertheless super important. You can bookmark this page and double-check if something can be recycled or not whenever you’re unsure!
And don’t forget to read my post where I show you exactly how to properly recycle step-by-step if you haven’t already.