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It would be great if plastics just had a simple code for “yes, recycle this” or “no, trash it“. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Here’s why:

  1. It is easier to recycle certain types of plastic and not easy to recycle others.
  2. Recycling is a business and there is simply more of a demand for certain types of recycled plastics than for others. As such, recycling facilities have a stronger incentive to recycle the plastics they can sell.

So overall, plastics that are easy to recycle and attract buyers are more readily accepted by recycling facilities. Plastics that are difficult to sell or recycle are less commonly accepted.

Recycle it or not?

First, check your city’s website to see which plastics they accept and which go into the regular trash. If you can’t find the information you need, follow the below Yes/No rules and consider putting “Maybes” in the trash.

Also read: 12 Easy Swaps to Rid Your Kitchen of Plastic and Aluminum

Yes, recycle plastic codes #1 and #2

Always recycled plastic

Recycling codes #1 (hard) and #2 are the most widely accepted. Recycling centers have the equipment to process these plastics, and there are plenty of manufacturers willing to buy them.

Where you’ll find them:

  • #1: Soft drink bottles, water bottles, peanut butter jars, salad dressing, cooking oil, many cleaning products.
  • #2: Milk and juice jugs, bleach, laundry detergent, shampoo, motor oil, some retail bags and trash bags, some yogurt and butter tubs, cereal box liners.

These plastics are recycled into new plastic containers, tote bags, fleece clothing, carpet, furniture, paneling, pipes, lumber, benches, fencing, dog houses, and picnic tables.

Some centers can recycle codes #1 (soft), #4, and #5

Sometimes recycled plastics

Give your local facility a call to see if they accept plastic codes #1 (soft), #4, and #5. They are becoming more commonly accepted as technology improves and as the market for these plastics grows.

Where you’ll find them:

  • #1 (soft): Food take-out containers, microwaveable trays, and plastic cups.
  • #4: Most grocery store bags, plastic wraps, frozen food bags, bread bags, 6-pack rings, squeezable bottles, aseptic packaging.
  • #5: Yogurt containers, straws, fast-food syrup containers, disposable diapers, disposable cups and plates, ketchup squeeze bottles, some baby bottles, and outdoor carpet.

These plastics are recycled into things like plastic lumber, floor tile, trash cans and liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes, plastic brooms, rakes, trays, hairbrushes, ice scrapers, bike racks, battery cables, and signal lights.

Also read: Let’s Unplastic Your Bathroom, Shall We?

Most centers cannot recycle these plastics (but do check)

Rarely recycled plastics

It is difficult to recycle plastics #3, #6, and #7 into other products. Or, in some cases, it is just not economically feasible to do so. Still, do check with your local recycling facility, because some cities do accept one or more of these codes and, as technology improves, more cities will do so.

Where you’ll find them:

  • #3: Plastic wraps, some cooking oil containers, peanut butter jars, blister packs, window cleaner and detergent bottles, shower curtains, vinyl pipes, flooring, and home siding. (#3 plastic is known as PVC or vinyl.)
  • #6: Styrofoam cups & plates, clamshell carry-out containers, foam egg cartons, building insulation, disposable cutlery, some over-the-counter medicine cases, and CD cases. (#6 plastic is known as polystyrene, or the trademarked “Styrofoam”.)
  • #7: Some plastic baby bottles, sippy cups, 3- and 5-gallon water jugs, lids, sunglasses, Nylon, signs, medical storage containers, some plastic cutlery, any toys or electronics that are only partly plastic.

When they are recycled, these plastics tend to be made into things like speed bumps, cables, mud flaps, paneling, cables, insulation, egg cartons, rulers, vents, foam packing materials, and take-out containers.

How some plastics contaminate the recycling stream

Most food packaging and other plastics are stamped with a recycling symbol, even if they are not commonly accepted for recycling.

The problem is that if we throw non-recyclable plastics into the blue bin, they can contaminate the entire recycling stream. Manufacturers who buy recycled plastic will pay less for contaminated plastics, or they won’t buy them at all.

Just like any other business, recycling facilities operate on sales revenue. Low-quality plastics sell for lower prices, and that lower revenue makes it harder for the recycler to provide us with their invaluable service.

What to do with hard-to-recycle plastics

  • Sometimes a recycling facility will not accept a certain plastic (like Styrofoam) as part of their curbside recycling program but will accept that same plastic if you drop it off. You’ll need to call to find out.
  • Big box stores, supermarkets, office supply chains, and hardware stores often act as drop-off centers for plastics that municipalities do not accept. Keep an eye out for these collection centers as you do your regular shopping, so you know where to go when you need one.
  • If the plastic does not have a code, there is little way of knowing whether it can be recycled for sure. In this case, it is usually safest to throw the plastic in the trash to avoid contaminating the recycling stream.

Good to know: It’s always a good idea to rinse plastic before recycling it, even if your recycling center doesn’t require it. This will keep mold, insects, and scavenging animals away.


Natural Living Guide

Find practical tips & natural alternatives to the everyday chemicals that invade our lives.

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