We are living in the Anthropocene era, so, the purpose of this article is to break down recycling hieroglyphics.

“It has a recycling symbol AND I am putting it in the recycling bin, so it will be recycled…right bro?”

Sadly, “no bro.”

Most people dutifully separate certain items from the rest of their garbage and throw plastic items “away” in recycling bins. But when it comes to the last part of our ubiquitous three “r” mantra, our recycling system is only recycling 9% of plastics. YIKES!

So, if the plastic items we are throwing “away” don’t get recycled in a magical sorting system at a recycling plant, then what do the recycling symbols even mean?

First, some history. The universal recycling symbol was created to actually encourage the use of cardboard, not help sort plastics! In 1970, Gary Anderson entered a design competition held by the Container Corporation of America to promote paper recycling as a method to conserve Earth’s natural resources. He was inspired by the Mobius loop, which first debuted in 200 AD Roman Mosaics. His recycling symbol consisted of three-chasing-arrows in the shape of a triangle having round vertices. Each arrow twists and turns itself, and all three arrows chase each other, symbolizing a continuous loop.

Now, how we got to the recycling numbers?

In 1988, the American Society of the Plastics Industry (now ASTM International), began using seven numbers inside of the recycling symbol as a “resin identification code” to identify the type of plastic material used. Resin identification codes were never meant to be a guide to recycling!

But they still matter for your 411 and health. Additionally, knowing the numbers helps you make decisions on what to buy, not buy and what to actually throw in your recycling bin to avoid contamination at recycling centers.

Let’s breakdown the numbers:

Plastic Resin Recycling Codes

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE
    • PET Products: Single-use beverage bottles like water bottles
    • How to Recycle: Highly used because PET is inexpensive, lightweight, and poses a low risk of leaching chemicals. Rinse and empty all food from the bottle and put in recycling containers.
    • Pro Tip: Unless the cap says it can be recycled, remove it from the bottle because it is most likely made of a different material than PET/PETE like PP
    • Downcycled into: Yoga pants
    • Reality: 29% of PET bottles in the US today are downcycled

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE (high density polyethylene)
    • HDPE Products: Detergent, shampoo bottles, grocery and bread bags (also see #4)
    • How to recycle it: HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries a low risk of leaching and can often be picked up through most curbside recycling programs. Flimsy plastics (like grocery bags and plastic wrap) usually can’t be recycled, but some stores will collect and recycle them.
    • Downcycled into: Detergent, shampoo bottles
    • Reality: 32% of HDPE plastics are downcycled

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #3: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) 
    • PVC Products: Cooking oil bottles, siding, windows, piping, coatings
    • How to recycle it: PVC is a denser material with good tensile strength so it’s found in tons of products and packaging. Because chlorine is part of PVC, it can result in the release of highly dangerous dioxins during manufacturing. PVC can rarely be recycled, but 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. Never burn PVC as it releases dioxins.
    • Downcycled into: Decks, paneling, mud-flaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats
    • Reality: Less than 1% of PVC materials are downcycled

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE (low density polyethylene)
    • LDPE Products: Squeezable bottles (toothpaste); frozen food, dry cleaning, and shopping bags; tote bags; furniture
    • How to recycle it: LDPE is a flexible plastic with many applications. Historically, it hasn’t been accepted through most American recycling programs, but more and more communities are starting to accept it. Just like HDPE, plastic shopping bags can often be returned to stores for recycling.
    • Downcycled into: Trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, floor tile
    • Reality: Less than 0.7% of LDPE materials are downcycled

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbols #5: PP (polypropylene) 
    • PP Products: Some yogurt containers, syrup and medicine bottles, caps, straws
    • How to recycle it: PP has a high melting point, so it’s often chosen for containers that will hold hot liquid. It’s gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers. It can be recycled through some curbside programs, just don’t forget to make sure there’s no food left inside. It’s best to throw loose caps into the garbage since they easily slip through screens during recycling and end up as trash anyways.
    • Downcycled into: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays
    • Reality: 3% of PP products are currently being downcycled

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #6: PSPS (polystyrene, “styrofoam”)
    • PSPS Products: Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, “styrofoam peanuts”
    • How to recycle it: PSPS can be made into rigid or foam products, but styrene oxide is a known carcinogen. Not many curbside recycling programs accept PS in the form of rigid plastics. Since foam products tend to break apart into smaller pieces, you should place them in a bag, squeeze out the air, and tie it up before putting it in the trash to prevent pellets from dispersing.
    • Downcycled into: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers
    • Reality: 10-12% of PSPS products are currently being downcycled

  1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #7: Miscellaneous
    • A wide variety of plastic resins that don’t fit into the previous categories are lumped into this one. Polycarbonate is number seven plastic, and it’s the hard plastic that has worried parents after studies have shown it as a hormone disruptor.
    • Products: The wild card of baby bottles, computer cases, signs, displays, DVDs,3 and 5 gallon reusable bottles
    • How to recycle it: These other plastics are traditionally NOT recycled, so don’t expect your local provider to accept them. The best option is to consult your municipality’s website for specific instructions.
    • Downcycled into: Plastic lumber and custom-made products
    • Reality: Unknown how much #7 is downcycled, but our guess is near the 0% range

Summary

  • Although we all need to be recycling, we can’t reduce, reuse and recycle out a system that is only “recycling” aka downcycling 9% of plastic
  • Resin identification codes were never meant to be a guide to recycling, but are helpful to understand what materials are in products and containers
  • Recycling labels are not yet standardized
  • Recycling information is complicated and conflicting
  • Most of the plastics in use today can be recycled but, because mechanical recycling produces a less stable polymer, the products which can be made from this recycled plastic are of “less value” than the original – we call this “downcycling.”

Action Steps:

  • Plastic objects without a recycling symbol are not recyclable
  • “Safer” choices are coded #1, #2, #4 and #5
  • Avoid #3, #6 and most plastics labeled #7
  • Rinse your plastic bottles and food containers to increase the likelihood of recycling
  • Remove caps (#5) from soda bottles (#1)
  • If you have to buy plastic, always rinse your plastic bottles and food containers to increase the likelihood for recycling. Also, return your plastic bags back to the grocery store
  • Buy items made of recycled content (at least 30%) which increases recycling demand and helps drive innovation to clean up our landfills.
  • Don’t “wish cycle” aka throw things in the recycling bins that just contaminate the bins like dirty pizza boxes. If you are in doubt, check you local city waste management website to see what can be recycled.
  • Commit to carrying your own reusable ware (reusable utensils, coffee cups, waterbottles, straws, napkins, containers).  Moreover, many items that are collected, such as plastic straws and bags, eating utensils, yogurt and takeout containers often canNOT be recycled.

Download NOUR ZERO’s Zero Waste Guide to learn how to easily decrease your single-use plastic usage.