7 Plastic Recycling Codes that You Should Know

Blue recycle bin for plastic

Being responsible consumers, we consciously throw away plastic in the recycling bins after usage, yet somehow only 8.4% of plastic is actually being recycled in the USA. The remaining proportion is landfilled, incinerated, or ends up floating in the ocean. 

The reason behind the drastic difference is contamination. Plastic is easily contaminated when placed in the wrong bin or when non-recyclable materials (like plastic straws, bags, and takeout containers) are mixed in the right bin. 

Consequently, the entire recyclable batch loses value and gets discarded. 

On the upside, the power to improve the rate of plastic recycling resides within us – the 20,000 communities of America. The key is to be mindful of what goes into our recycling bins.

The first step to recycle better is to understand plastic better. That is where plastic recycling codes come into the picture. 

You might have often seen a tiny chasing arrows symbol with a number printed on various plastic products. However, the symbol does NOT imply that the item is recyclable.

It is a resin identification code which is usually mistaken as a recycling symbol because of the stark similarity between the two.

Plastic resin codes 1-7

The number (1-7) in the triangle holds the clue to the type of plastic you’re dealing with. Each number identifies the composition and recyclable characteristics of the respective plastic packaging material. 

Not all plastic is recyclable. With the help of resin codes, you can easily segregate recyclable materials. Moreover, you can figure out what type of plastic your local recycling program or facility accepts (it varies from town to town) based on these codes. 

The official website of your town might have specified the details, or you can reach out to the municipal recycling coordinator for the same.

Here’s a rundown on different types of plastic along with their uses, recycling factor, and health risks (if any):

Plastic #1: PETE or PET

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is found in the packaging of several products that we use in our day to day lives. The most common use of PET includes beverage bottles and food packaging. 

It is a versatile and sturdy material intended for single-use. PET is usually clear, lightweight, inexpensive, and safe for food storage.

Where is it used:

  • Single-use plastic bottles (water, juice, beer, mouthwash)
  • Salad dressing containers
  • Food containers (peanut butter, jelly, jam, pickles)
  • Microwavable food trays
  • Detergent and cleaning containers

Recyclability:

PET is completely recyclable. In fact, it is the most recycled plastic material in the USA. Additionally, almost every municipality accepts PET in curbside recycling programs. 

Keep in mind to rinse off the container before adding it to the bin. Since container lids are made from a different type of plastic, confirm with the program whether they accept lids and caps.

Health concerns:

There are no known health issues to PET. It does not contain BPA or plasticizers.

Plastic #2: HDPE

We bet you must have an HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) product at your home right now.

Because of its stiffness and good chemical resistance, HDPE plastic is widely used in packaging household products with a shorter shelf life (like milk jugs). It does not leach into food and is weather-resistant too.

Where is it used:

  • Water and milk jugs
  • Containers for laundry detergent, shampoo, cosmetics, motor oil, and household cleaners
  • Some grocery and shopping bags
  • Cereal box liners
  • Toys
  • Pipes
  • Cutting boards

Recyclability:

HDPE can be easily recycled (at least ten times). Recycled HDPE is used to make new containers for non-food items, plastic lumber for outdoor decking, pipes, buckets, ropes, toys, recycling bins, and more.

You can submit HDPE products at curbside recycling programs. However, plastic bags are not accepted over there (they wreak havoc on machines at the recycling plant). 

Find the nearest drop-off location or local retail stores that accept bags and wraps instead.

Health concerns:

HDPE is considered safe, with no known health risks involved.

Plastic #3: PVC or V

The term “PVC” might ring a bell with you (Hint: PVC pipes).

Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC is often used for rigid applications like pipes, window frames, and siding. It is grease, oil, and chemical resistant.

Note that PVC is potentially harmful and should never be used for cooking or food storage. It releases dioxins when manufactured, burnt, or landfilled.

Where is it used:

  • Vinyl pipes
  • Flooring and siding
  • Window and door frames
  • Shower curtains
  • Fencing and railing
  • Blister packaging
  • Window cleaner and detergent bottles

Recyclability:

PVC is the least recyclable material due to high chlorine content and harmful additives in it. 

Check with your local recycling authorities to see if they have any specific instructions to dispose of PVC products.

Health concerns:

Also known as the poison plastic, PVC releases toxic chemicals (lead, DEHA, dioxins, phthalates, etc.) when manufactured, disposed, or destructed. 

Exposure to these toxins can cause severe health problems, including disruption in hormones, cancer, damaged immune system, decreased birth weight, and behavioral problems in children.

Plastic #4: LDPE

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) is a flexible and comparatively transparent material. 

It is resistant to vegetable oils, acids, and bases. That is why LDPE is primarily used for packaging that involves heat sealing. 

Moreover, LDPE is FDA-compliant and food-safe.

Where is it used:

  • Bread and frozen food wrapping
  • Dry cleaning, grocery, and newspaper bags
  • Shrink wraps
  • Squeezable bottles (like honey and mustard)
  • Bottle lids
  • Coatings for paper milk cartons and beverage cups

Recyclability:

Although LDPE is not usually recycled, more and more recycling communities have begun to accept it. However, there are quite a few plants that recycle LDPE. 

Reach out to your local supermarkets and grocery stores if they host drop-off programs for LDPE plastic bags.

Health concerns:

LDPE does not contain bisphenol-A (BPA). There are no known health hazards to LDPE upon household exposure.

Plastic #5: PP

The majority of microwavable plastic containers are made from Polypropylene (PP). Although that does not mean every PP container is microwavable. There are other factors to be considered like wall thickness and strength of the container in question. 

Sidenote: Use glass containers in the microwave whenever possible.

PP is heat resistant and has a high melting point, thus, making it a suitable choice for packaging hot-fill liquids.

Where is it used:

  • Containers for yogurt, margarine, deli soups, and syrups
  • Straws
  • Medicine and baby bottles
  • Bottle caps
  • Disposable diapers

Recyclability:

PP is a recyclable material (not an easy one, though). Some recycling initiatives do accept PP products. You can enquire with your local recycling program and make sure to empty the container before putting it in the recycling bin.

In case they don’t, you can always recycle PP through Preserve Gimme 5 program. They accept all #5 plastic products by mail.

Health concerns:

PP has no known health issues and is safe to use.

Plastic #6: PS

Packing peanuts (or loose-fill) draws a pretty clear picture of Polystyrene (PS). 

PS is used for both rigid and foam products. The foamed ones are popularly called Styrofoam. 

Polystyrene takes at least 500 years to decompose. It’s a nasty plastic that is on the hit list of many environmentalists.

Where is it used:

  • Disposable cutlery, cups, bowls, plates, and food containers
  • CD cases
  • Egg cartons
  • Meat and poultry trays
  • Insulation
  • Aspirin bottles

Recyclability:

Polystyrene is recyclable, but the process is not economically viable. 

Most of the curbside recycling programs don’t accept PS mainly because it is 95% air. It is not cost-effective, and the energy used in recycling is more than the energy saved. Moreover, the material easily contaminates with food or drinks.

You can try reusing PS products like packing peanuts and cutlery instead.

Health concerns:

Polystyrene poses health risks to people. Containers made with PS leach a toxin called styrene when coming in contact with warm food or drink, alcohol, oils, and acidic food items. 

Styrene is a human carcinogen that can have respiratory effects in the short term and cancer in the long term exposure. 

Do not microwave food in PS containers. Also, never burn it with your garden rubbish.

Plastic #7: Other

All the other types of biodegradable (Polylactic acid or PLA) and non-biodegradable (nylon, acrylic, polycarbonate) plastic resins fall in this category. Sometimes type #7 plastic is made by mixing different types of resins. 

Generally, they are not for reuse unless the code specifies they are PLA compostable.

Where is it used:

  • Three-gallon and five-gallon water bottles
  • Sunglasses
  • Bullet-proof materials
  • Computer cases
  • Nylon clothes
  • Clear plastic cutlery and sippy cups

Recyclability:

Since there is no catch-all resin for type #7 plastic, there is no standard recycling protocol for it.

It is usually difficult to recycle this material, therefore, not commonly accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Health concerns:

The main health concern is with food containers made from Polycarbonate (PC). 

Avoid microwaving food in them as PC is known to leach harmful chemical BPA into food and water.

The Bottom Line: Reduce and Reuse before Recycle

Plastic is not good for the environment and humans alike. 

Try curbing its use and switch to more environment-friendly alternatives. Replace single-use plastic with reusable bags; use glass or steel containers for microwaving; carry reusable containers for food.

Recycling should be the last resort when it comes to dealing with plastic.


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