According to NPR, the average American disposes of 250 pounds of plastic waste per year. Unfortunately, most of it is going to a landfill rather than being recycled or downcycled. While a full-fledged zero-waste lifestyle might not be attainable for you, properly recycling your plastics is a step in the right direction.
Confused about what can go into this blue bin? That’s probably because it’s always changing.
What can be recycled is dependent on the market and the city government. If there is demand for these materials, then recyclers and companies will pay for you to recycle them. In addition, government regulations create opportunities for companies to recycle legally-mandated products, but each municipality is different.
Not all plastics have a market. To understand which ones do and what can be recycled, first, you should recognize what the plastic recycling numbers mean.
You may have noticed that most plastic items have a number in a triangle on the bottom. This is an indicator of what type of material it contains and how to properly dispose of it.
Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PETE or PET, is one of the most common types of plastic.
This clear plastic is usually found in:
Most curbside recycling programs will accept PETE. Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (or RPET) can be used to create new containers, pallet straps, carpet and clothing fibers.
While high-density polyethylene (HDPE) may be similar in appearance to PET, it is a higher density so it requires different recycling machines.
HDPE is commonly found in:
Curbside recycling programs usually accept HDPE plastics. They can be reused as detergent bottles, floor tile, pipe or fencing.
Have you heard of PVC pipes? These are made of polyvinyl chloride.
V or PVC is used in:
This type of plastic can rarely be recycled. It may be accepted by plastic lumber makers who repurpose it into decks, paneling, flooring, cables, speed bumps or mats.
Despite this type of plastic being a lower density than PETE or HDPE, it’s harder to recycle. The recycling machines are prone to breaking down due to this soft and pliable material.
Low-density polyethylene or LDPE is usually found in:
While some stores will collect and recycle their shopping bags that are made of LDPE, this type of plastic is not usually recycled in curbside programs. Those specialty recyclers that do accept it are able to recycle it into trash can liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes and landscaping materials.
Not sure if you should leave the lid on your water bottle? It depends on if your recycling program accepts polypropylene.
PP is most often found in:
Some curbside recycling programs accept polypropylene. With it, they are able to make streetlights, battery cables, brooms, rakes, ice scrapers, bicycle racks and bins.
Polystyrene is one of the more sturdy plastics, making it difficult to recycle unless the recycler has the proper machinery.
Polystyrene can be found in:
Check with your curbside recycling program to see if they accept polystyrene or PS. If so, it can be reused as insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, rulers, foam packing or carry-out containers.
This is a broad category that encompasses all other types of plastic. Curbside programs can't recycle type O plastics. Compostable plastic, labeled PLA, is one exception. While it can't be recycled, it is compostable.
Proper plastic recycling can make a big impact. The following is a checklist, with resources that will guide you when trying to decide if an item can be recycled.
Look at the number on the bottom of the item to see what type of plastic it's made of. You may also notice a How2Recycle label that gives more specific instructions on recycling.
Look online to see what types of recyclables your curbside service accepts. You can do this by googling, “City name” + curbside recycling requirements.
Some other resources for finding recyclers in your area:
Be sure the item doesn’t have any dirt or food remnants on it. This will ensure that it doesn’t attract bugs while in the recycling bin and make the recycling process easier.
Often times your items might contain different types of plastic. For example, a water bottle is made of type 1 plastic but the lid is type 6 and the label could be paper or a combination of plastics.
If your recycler doesn’t accept one of these, be sure to separate it from the main product. If you can’t separate them, they can’t be recycled.
Put it in the blue bin for your recycler to collect on the designated recycling day.
Plastic bags are usually a type 2 or 4 plastic. These types of plastics tend to cause issues. These bags often get wrapped around equipment and are prone to blow off of recycling trucks or recycling piles at the plant.
You’d be doing more good to save your plastic bags and recycle them at a bag-specific donation center. If you do decide to recycle them, make sure they are weighed down with other recyclable materials.
Bottle caps are usually a type 5 plastic. This plastic causes issues because it melts at a different temperature than the rest of the plastic bottle (type 1 plastic). In addition, caps can shoot off when the bottle is pressurized at the recycling plant, causing harm to workers.
Due to these factors, the traditional advice was to remove bottle caps when recycling bottles. Unfortunately, removing them completely makes them hard to spot on the conveyer belt.
Today, technologies have advanced and recyclers advise to keep the bottle caps on so that they can be found and sorted properly.
Styrofoam is a number 6 plastic. Most recyclers don’t accept styrofoam because it doesn’t have a very big resale market. If your recycler does accept this plastic, be sure that it’s properly cleaned when you dispose of it. Styrofoam commonly attracts dirt or food remnants and then is sent to the landfill to decompose for 500 years.
The most sustainable option is to try to upcycle this styrofoam in your own home by reusing it.
Coffee cups are made of paper and polypropylene film. This type 1 plastic keeps the liquid from dripping out of the cup as well as controls the temperature of your beverage.
Unfortunately, separating these materials requires a special machine that most recycling plants do not have. Since these can’t be recycled, they end up in a landfill. To prevent this, try bringing your own coffee mug to a coffee shop for a more sustainable energy boost.
Similar to coffee cups, these boxes and cartons are mainly made up of paper. However, they do contain a layer of plastic that’s LDPE (number 4 plastic). This is very difficult to separate, so many curbside recyclers don’t accept them.
Be sure to check if yours does. If it doesn’t, consider purchasing these consumable items in different packaging that can be recycled.
Each recycling facility has different equipment and markets for its plastics so there are variations in what they will accept. Look up what your facility accepts and then circle the recycling numbers.
Fill out the sections based on what your recycler accepts. Then, hang it by the recycling bin in your home, school or work so that you and your community can do a better job of recycling.
Be sure your apartment complex, school or work is up to date on their local recycling rules. Post one of these recycling guides (on recycled paper) next to your blue bin so you never forget what goes where.