Sustainable Life: Recycling Plastics

Curbside recycling guidelines can vary depending on location and recycling center, so it can sometimes get a little confusing. This is your generic go-to for recycling plastics.

Resin identification code

As long as we all have accurate information, we can recycle a lot of plastic. So, let’s start with the different types of plastic:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) – jackets, salad dressing containers
  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – milk jugs, hula hoop rings, juice bottles, yogurt tubs
  3. Vinyl (V) – shampoo bottles, credit cards, rigid piping
  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – shopping bags, carpet, food wraps
  5. Polypropylene (PP) – utensils, syrup bottles, medicine bottles
  6. Polystyrene (PS) – egg cartons, disposable plates
  7. Other – sunglasses, electronic cases, Kevlar

These types are almost always labeled on your plastic products, so you know what your product was made with. They usually look like the image above. You may have seen this universal symbol for recycling on something you bought and thought, “hey, this is recyclable – that’s great!” Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case.

Of these types of plastic, the only numbers that are safe to recycle are 1, 2, 4, and 5. 7 is a tricky one, but we’ll get to that later. PETE (1) is widely considered the safest of these to recycle, but repeated use of the same bottle/container could cause leaching of dangerous chemicals. HDPE (2) is very popular when recycled. The material does not transmit any chemicals to the foods and drink in them, which makes them very safe for the end-users.

LDPE (4) and PP (5) are both considered reasonably safe for recycling but are not all recyclable. For example, open-top containers (like yogurt cups) are not recyclable. This is a frustrating truth because these containers are difficult to avoid and offer little help in sustainability. These containers are usually labeled with a 5 (PP), so be sure to watch out.

The final recyclable identification number is 7. This is another tricky one because some are recyclable, while some are not. Those that are labeled PC (Polycarbonate) are plastics to avoid. They can leach bisphenol-A, a known hormone disrupter. However, PLA (Polylactic Acid) is a safe, biodegradable plastic made from plants. Though this means that the plastic cannot be recycled, it also means that it is completely compostable. Just make sure the item is certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) before composting!