Americans produce a staggering 35 million tons of plastic waste a year, and an equally staggering less than 10% of it gets recycled. Living a zero-waste lifestyle may not be possible for everyone, but making sure you recycle plastics properly is a move in the right direction.
However, the rules around recycling can be complicated and confusing. It's not as simple as tossing a can or plastic bottle into the blue bin and paper in the yellow one.
What gets placed in what bin, and if it can be recycled, depends on your local government, recycling service, and the market. If the material is in demand, then recyclers profit from recycling them. Additionally, government regulations may mandate the recycling of specific materials, but these regulations may not be the same across different municipalities.
Unfortunately, not all plastics are recyclable or have a market, which is why the first course of action is to try to reduce plastic use as much as possible. The next step is to know which plastics can be recycled. To do this, you need to know the plastic recycling symbols and what they mean. You may also need to check with your local recycling center to find out which numbers they can recycle.
How to Determine What's Recyclable Plastic
We've all wondered how to determine what plastic is recyclable. It theory, all plastics should be eligible for recycling, but this isn't the case. We've all seen the recycling triangle logo, but what does it mean in different contexts?
These symbols hold the key to what you can put in the recycling bin and plastics that are not recyclable. Some plastics are made with chemicals that are too toxic, making it illegal to recycle them because toxins will be released in the process and harm our environment.
Types of Plastics & Symbols
You've probably seen the number inside a triangle on plastic items, usually on the bottom. These recycling symbols indicate what type of plastic the item contains and whether or not it can be recycled.
#1 – Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET)
Also known as PETE or PET, polyethylene terephthalate is one of the most common types of plastic. It is often found in:
- Water bottles
- Soda bottles
- Food packaging
PETE is accepted by almost all curbside recycling programs. When recycled, PETE can be used in new containers, carpet, pallet straps, and clothing fibers. This is the type of plastic often used by eco-friendly brands.
#2 – High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE is similar to PET in appearance, but it is higher in density, so different recycling equipment is needed.
HDPE is found in:
- Personal care bottles
- Milk jugs
- Butter or yogurt tubs
- Trash bags
- Cereal box liners
These plastics are generally accepted by municipal recycling programs. They are recycled into detergent bottles, pipes, fencing, and floor tile.
#3 – Vinyl or polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC)
The most well-known item made from polyvinyl chloride is PVC pipes. Here are some other things made of V or PVC:
- Cooking oil bottles
- Cleaning product bottles
- Medical equipment
- Clear food packaging
PVC is hard to recycle. It is sometimes recycled into decks, flooring, paneling, cables, mats, or speed bumps.
#4 – Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
As the name implies, this plastic is lower in density than PETE or HDPE, but also harder to recycle. Because this material is so soft and pliable, the machines used to recycle it often break down.
LDPE is found in:
- Dry cleaning bags
- Grocery bags
- Squeezable bottles
- Tote bags
This plastic cannot be recycled through a curbside program and shouldn't be put in the recycling bin. It will cause the recycling equipment to break down. Some stores have containers on-site to collect and recycle shopping bags, with specialty recyclers that will turn them into compost bins, shipping envelopes, liners for trash cans, and landscaping materials.
#5 – Polypropylene (PP)
Should you leave the top on your water bottle when you toss it in the bin? That depends on whether or not your municipal recycling program takes PP. Check the number on the bottom of your bottle!
PP is often found in:
- Yogurt containers
- Ketchup bottles
- Medicine bottles
- Drink caps
- Drink lids
There are some municipal curbside recycling that take PP. It can be repurposed into streetlights, brooms, battery cables, rakes, ice scrapers, bins, and bicycle racks.
#6 – Polystyrene (PS)
Your sturdier plastic items are typically made from polystyrene, making it hard to recycle unless your program has the right equipment.
Polystyrene is found in:
- Meat trays
- Disposable dishes
- Carry-out containers
- Egg cartons
- CD cases
- Medicine bottles
Check with your municipality's curbside recycling to find out if they take PS. If they do, it can be used to make carry-out containers, insulation, egg cartons, light switch plates, rulers, or foam packing.
#7 – Other
This very broad category includes all other plastic material. Municipal curbside recycling programs can't take plastics that are type O. An exception to this is compostable plastics (PLA). Although PLA can't be recycled, it can be composted.
Recycling Myths & Lies
From the kitchen table to the editorial pages, people have debated the merits of recycling for decades. Global markets and recycling technology have evolved, but our ideas about recycling may not have. A lot of myths remain about what goes into those blue bins and what happens to it.
Myth No. 1: Recycling uses more energy than making something new.
This myth has been circulating for decades. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), plastic recycling saves one-third of the energy compared to make products from new materials.
Myth No. 2: Items must be carefully sorted for recycling.
When recycling was a new concept, many recyclers insisted all items be carefully sorted. All that has changed in the last few years. More communities use single-stream systems, which means that all recyclables can be placed in one container. Food residue and things like paper clips are burned or collected by magnets. In addition, over 60% of U.S. households have carton recycling.
Myth No. 3: Products made from recycled materials are of lower quality.
At first, recycled paper was subpar and recycled plastic was considered weak. Some people still think this is true. But manufacturers have improved their processes and have made strides in quality to meet rising consumer demand for recycled products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved recycled plastic for use with food products.
Myth No. 4: Products made of more than one type of material can't be recycled.
This was true when recycling was in its infancy, but these days, over 60% of U.S. households have access to carton recycling.
Myth No. 5: Electronics can go in the recycling bin.
With the advent of single-stream recycling, people started throwing everything into the bin, and many people still assume that anything made of plastic can be recycled. In the case of electronics, this is not the true. While these items can be recycled and reused, they must go to a facility that knows how to handle them properly.
Myth No. 6: Materials can't be recycled more than once.
This is partly true and partly false. Materials such as aluminum and glass can be recycled over and over. Plastic, however, has a short recycling life, as plastic bottles don't become plastic bottles over again. Instead, they are downgraded into plastic pellets that can be turned into clothing or rugs.
If we don't dispose of our recyclable materials properly, they can end up in landfills and our oceans. When purchasing items in plastic containers, check what form of plastic it is and try to avoid any that are hard or impossible or difficult to recycle. Glass is generally a good option, as it is generally long-lasting and free of harmful chemicals.