The Ultimate Guide to Which Plastics Can and Can’t Be Recycled
There’s no denying that plastic waste is a growing issue across the world. While the manufacturing and use of plastics are a concern, the significant problem lies with the recycling — or lack thereof — of this material.
According to the EPA, Americans generate more than 267 million tons of waste every year — and only 94.2 million tons of it gets recycled or composted. In 2021, 3,090,000 tons of plastic were thrown away — and only 8% of it was recycled. To put this into perspective, that’s about what the entire human population weighs!
- Some products include multiple types of plastics, which can’t always be easily separated from one another.
- Plastics are often contaminated with food particles or other substances.
Being more eco-conscious about your plastic use starts with knowing which plastics can be recycled (and how). That’s why we’ve put together this in-depth guide about which types of plastics can (and can’t) be recycled or reused.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to recycle more plastic this year!
Recyclable Products & Which Plastics Cannot Be Recycled
There are 7 categories that most plastics fall into.
Usually, you can find the numbers that correspond with each category on the bottom or side of any plastic product you purchase. If you come across something that doesn’t have the number and recognizable 3 arrows chasing one another, don’t put it in your recycling bin!
As you sort your recycling, be sure you pay attention to the number that’s on each plastic item. These numbers tell you whether that item can be recycled.
When you recycle properly, you help ensure the reusable materials that are in your recycle bin do make it to a processing center!
Plastics That Can Be Recycled
1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)
- Used in food packaging like beverage and food bottles, or polyester clothing and rope
- Avoid reusing
PET is one of the most commonly-used plastics. While they’re recyclable, you want to avoid reusing them because they’re hard to clean and can absorb bacteria. PET products are usually meant for single-use.
2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
- Used in milk cartons, cereal liners, detergent bottles, toys, buckets, and park benches
- Can be recycled & reused
HDPE is collectively the most commonly used plastics. They’re safe for reuse because they’re resistant to moisture and don’t transmit any chemicals into food.
Plastics That Can Be Recycled But Aren’t Commonly Accepted
3. Polypropylene (PP)
- Used in straws, bottle caps, prescription bottles, and yogurt cups
- Most recycling facilities will not take PP
- Safe to reuse
PP is technically recyclable, but not all states have adopted systems to properly recycle it. If you are in an area that does recycle PP products, make sure there are no food remnants. You can also find mail-in recycling options depending on where you live.
You can plug in your zip code on the Earth911 site to find out where you can recycle this plastic, or by calling 1(800) CLEANUP.
Plastics That Can’t Be Recycled
4. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)
- Used in plumbing pipes, rain gutters, medical equipment, teething rings, and toys
- Not recyclable
- Do not reuse
PVC is diverse — it can be hard and rigid enough for construction and soft and flexible enough for plastic food wrap. It’s also ideal for medical equipment because it’s impermeable to germs.
On the flip side, it can’t be recycled or reused because it can leak dangerous toxins.
5. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
- Used in cling wrap, sandwich bags, grocery bags, bubble wrap, and plastic drinking cups
- Most recycling facilities will not take LDPE
- Safe to reuse
LDPE is safe to reuse at home, but many centers have not figured out how to properly recycle it. The issue isn’t so much that it can’t be recycled, it’s more so that it can tangle up in the machines.
6. Polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam)
- Used in takeout food containers, shipping materials, cutlery, and building isolation materials
- Not recyclable and accounts for about 35% of US landfill material
- Do not reuse
Styrofoam, like PVC, releases dangerous toxins as it dissipates, making it unsafe for reuse at home. There have been some breakthroughs in recycling PS materials, but it’s a costly process that hasn’t been adopted by a majority of states.
7. Polycarbonate, BPA, and Other Plastics
- This category functions as a catch-all for all other plastics that don’t fall into the other 6 groups.
- Used in eyeglasses, plastic cutlery, nylon, and fiberglass
Finally, assume that anything with a “7” on it isn’t recyclable. The only time a product in this category can be reused safely is if it has PLA compostable coding on it.
By knowing the types of plastics you’re buying, you can look for options or alternatives that offer the ability to recycle or repurpose. To find out how to properly recycle in your area, look into your state’s recycling resources.
Tips to Reduce Your Plastic Use
Learning the proper way to recycle is important in reducing waste, but conscious consumption will have more of an impact on your carbon footprint.
- Stop using plastic bags: Bring reusable bags with you to the grocery store or market.
- Break up with plastic water bottles: Invest in a solid travel water bottle and refill anytime you need.
- Shop sustainably: Buy from brands who are committed to eco-friendly practices and production standards. Buy second-hand items when you can.
- Replace plastics in your home with reusable products: Get rid of the Tupperware and start using jars or glass containers. Keep your beauty and body products in reusable containers.
- Buy in bulk: Take your own containers to the store and buy foods that have long shelf lives in bulk
Live More Environmentally-Friendly This Year
While plastic has many valuable uses, our continued use of it can result in severe environmental and health consequences.
But, together we can make a difference. By continuing to learn more about how to properly manage recyclable materials and what to do with those that can’t be repurposed, we can start to see a change in our oceans, wildlands, and our own communities.
It’s up to us to protect our planet and keep toxic and harmful plastic waste out of the ocean.