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Plastic Recycling 101

Plastic constitutes 12% of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream, and is one of the most commonly recycled items. Recycling one ton of plastic saves about 3.8 barrels of oil. But recycling your plastics at home can be confusing.


What is actually recyclable? What do all those numbers mean? How come I can’t recycle it when it has a recycle symbol on it?

The Numbers

First, let’s decipher what all those little numbers on the bottoms of your plastic containers mean. Plastics are numbered 1 through 7. The numbers refer to the type of plastic resin used in the manufacturing process. Those resins melt at different temperatures, and therefore must be processed separately from each other.


#1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) plastics are most commonly used for beverages, milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, etc. These are the most commonly accepted in recycling programs.


#3 plastics are PVC, and are the least commonly accepted.


#4 (LDPE) plastics are most commonly used to make plastic bags and squeezeable food bottles.


#5 (Polyproylene), #6 (Polystyrene) and #7 (Other) plastics are used in many applications from food containers and pill bottles to packaging peanuts and plastic silverware. These last three are likely to give you fits when trying to recycle.

If it’s marked with a recycle symbol why can’t I recycle it?

The materials accepted in most municipal recycling programs are market dependent. That is, there must be a market where the recycled material may be sold, or it probably won’t be collected. #1 and #2 plastics enjoy a stable market in the U.S. and are recyclable almost everywhere. #3 through #7 plastics are included in recycling programs far less often as they are more difficult to market. Plastic bags are also not commonly accepted in municipal programs.  However, many retailers now have plastic bag recycling available on site.  WalMart is one such company.

What about all those lids?

Unfortunately, most programs will not accept bottle caps or container lids.  Usually lids are made from a different type of plastic than the container.  This is why you will usually be asked to remove lids before recycling the bottle or tub. 


In the end, whether a plastic is ‘recyclable’ depends on the program in your area. Check with your local provider to determine exactly which plastics they accept, and to get more information on why they don’t accept others.





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  1. ugh
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    All this ”sadly cannot be recycled” talk is just rubbish. There are many countries unlike America, where bottlecaps are accepted, because you can give any bottle with a special symbol for recyclement away. America is one country where the bottle giving away system doesn’t really work, because PEOPLE WERE COMPLAINING ABOUT 5-9 CENTS THAT WERE TO BE ADDED TO THE PRICE OF THE BOTTLE,what you later got back anyways as you gave back the bottle…….

    • Posted September 29, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      You are correct. However, this site is primarily for US residents. Virtually everything can be recycled if you live somewhere that offers the service. Refer to the last paragraph. It would not make sense for a local recycling program in one state to ship recyclables to a processor several states away because the carbon footprint of the transportation offsets the environmental benefit, even if someone is willing to pay for it.
      That said, this post was published a couple of years ago, and recycling is making huge strides. Many programs that could not accept certain items in the past are now able to. Always check with your local provider.

  2. Posted December 14, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Hot damn, looking pretty ufseul buddy.

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  1. […] resin, which can be identified by the plastic recycling number on the bottom of the container (see Plastic Recycling 101 to find out what each of those numbers means). Recycling two resin plastics has simply not been a […]

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