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Plastic Recycle Numbers and What They Mean

By: Morgan Trout


Have you ever looked at a plastic water bottle or container of some sort and noticed a number within a recycle symbol? You probably saw that and thought “oh, this must be recyclable“, or maybe you thought only certain numbers were recyclable and wondered which ones were. I am here to tell you… It’s a little bit of both!

Recycle numbers are there to signify the chemical processes that took place to create that plastic and what they can therefore be recycled into. While all of these plastics are technically recyclable, according to National Geographic, 91% of plastic has never been recycled. Furthermore, scientists predict that a whopping 32% of that plastic eventually ends up in our oceans. Since some plastics are easily recycled and some are almost never accepted at recycling facilities, it is important to know which is which.

The first symbol is #1: PET or PETE. PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is most common in single-use bottled beverages and remains at about a 20% recycle rate despite its popularity.

Symbol #2, HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a highly recyclable plastic that is used for milk jugs, house hold cleaning products, shampoo bottles, butter tubs, and more.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) is symbol #3 and are used, you guessed it, to make pipes. Unfortunately, due to the chemicals in PVC, it can release highly dangerous dioxins during manufacturing. Because it is so difficult to recycle, you should ask your local waste management to see if it should be disposed of in the trash or dropped of at a collection center.

Symbol #4, or LDPE (low density polyethylene ), is often found in squeezable bottles, frozen food, and bread bags. While they are not often recycled through curbside programs, they are being accepted more and more.

PP (polypropylen) is our 5th recycle symbol and is commonly used in takeout containers with hot food because of its high melting point. PP is also increasingly accepted my curbside pickup programs and can definitely be recycled.

Symbol #4 is PS (polystyrene) and is popularly known as the trademark Styrofoam. In its foam form, most recycling facilities won’t accept it as it is very difficult to recycle and is 98% air. Furthermore, it contains probable carcinogens that can leach into your food or drink and should definitely be avoided.

Finally we have symbol #7 which is the miscellaneous or other category. This is where they throw everything that doesn’t fit into the previous 6 categories. Because of this, it is hard to determine if your #7 recyclable is safe or harmful. Things like polycarbonate fall into this category which has been shown in studies as a hormone disrupter. PLA (polylactic acid) also falls into this category which is a biodegradable and carbon neutral plastic made from plants. Luckily PLA will likely have another indicator to let you know its made from plants and belongs in your compost! Make sure to pay attention, because #7’s are not typically accepted by curbside programs.

All in all, I hope you learned more about the recycle numbers and what they mean. Opting for recycle numbers 1,2, and 5 and avoiding the others is your best bet if you want to make sure your plastic purchases are getting recycled. Whenever possible, avoiding plastic altogether will greatly lessen our impact on the planet and help keep our oceans clean.

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