Recycling Plastic; A Consumer’s Guide

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By now, recycling is a part of our culture, an accepted practice. Even the most consumptive individual in Western civilization has pretty easy access to some form of recycling program, even if they choose not to be involved in it.

But, as widespread as recycling is, there are often details that the average person is unaware of. This is particularly true when it comes to recycling plastic, one of the most common materials in our lives, and across a wide variety of products that we use.

So, are all plastics the same when it comes to recycling? Are there types of plastic that can be more easily recycled? 

Writer Jason Phillips is here to shed some light on the subject, and to add layers of knowledge to the home or office recycling program when it comes to plastic.


Most of us are well aware of the importance of recycling.  Many restaurants now have separate receptacles for recyclable and non recyclable waste.  Some even go so far as to have separate receptacles for glass, paper and plastic.  Most local towns and municipalities now provide a weekly recycle service along with the standard garbage pickup.  In some towns, it is a requirement that even compostable waste is separated from the recyclable and landfill destined waste.

Recycling plastic: are all plastics created equal?

This often brings up some interesting and complicated questions about what exactly is able to be recycled.  For instance, have you ever thought about whether or not your plastic waste can itself can be recycled?  Its plastic, so it should be ok to recycle, right? As it turns out, that is not necessarily the case.  Not all plastics are created equal and the national plastics standards committee has actually created seven different categories of plastics to help consumers understand where their plastics came from and where and if their specific plastic waste can be recycled.

Plastic recycling infographic courtesy of Click to enlarge.

Many people are confused about the different kinds of plastic and only about 15% of the plastic waste in the United States as of this year is actually recycled, despite having adequate recycling facilities for a majority of the plastic waste being thrown out.  That means that 85% of our plastic waste is filling up landfills every year.  Much of the reason for this is that consumers do not understand the differences between the kinds of plastic and either assume that their plastic waste cannot be recycled or just give up amidst the complexity of understanding the differences between the available plastics.

Plastics and recycling: which plastic is which?

The different kinds of plastics are identified by a symbol on the bottom of the plastic bottle or container that is a number encircled by three arrows, representing the plastic category 1-7 assigned by the SPI (Society for Plastics Industry).
The first categorization of plastics, level 1, consists of polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) and is the easiest plastic to recycle.  Luckily, it is also the most common.

Most soft drink, water bottles and medicine containers are in this category. The recycling process can use these materials for fiberfill for winter coats, sleeping bags and life jackets.  Also bean bags, rope, car bumpers, other plastic bottles, and even furniture can be made out of these recycled plastics.

Polyethylene plastics and recycling

Plastic category  2 consists of high-density polyethylene plastics. These come from thicker containers that hold milk, laundry detergent, and bleaches, shampoo and motor oil.  High density polyethylene can be recycled into toys, piping, plastic lumber and rope. Both category 1 and category 2 plastics are widely accepted at recycling centers.

Plastic pipes, shower curtains, medical tubing, vinyl dashboards, and even some baby bottle nipples are all made of Polyvinyl chloride and fall into category 3.  These plastics can be difficult to recycle and, along with categories 4 and 5 which include such things as plastic grocery bags and Tupperware, are less frequently accepted by recycling centers.
Styrofoam, aka polystyrene, is another frequently accepted recyclable plastic.  Coffee cups, disposable cutlery, meat trays, packing “peanuts” and insulation. It is widely accepted because it can be reprocessed into other items such as foam insulation.

“Plastic 7”

Finally, the last category of plastics is number 7.  This category is usually either very difficult or impossible to recycle.  That is because it is made up of a hybridization of several different kinds of plastic, or some plastic compound wholly unique to itself.  These plastics are almost never taken by recycle centers.

So if you are looking to recycle your plastic trash can, and look at the bottom for the plastic category number.  As long as you don’t see a number seven, you can probably recycle it.


Thanks Jason!

When not writing about recycling plastics, Jason Phillips is supplier of top quality kitchen trash cans, for more details feel free to explore his website.



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Cate Morgan-Harlow

Cate Morgan-Harlow is an all arounder, writing about how-to, DIY, and design with gusto. She is a shadowy figure with a mysterious past.