Updated: Apr 9, 2021
The idea for this blog post came to me when my close friend told me that she still doesn't understand recycling and all the numbers. And I personally had no knowledge of the different plastics and how to recycle them before interning at TerraCycle. TerraCycle is a New Jersey-based recycling company, and they basically recycle anything and everything. To give you an idea to the extent they are willing to go to eliminate waste; they even found a way to recycle diapers. You can read more about ReDyper here if you want. Now recycling is not the only solution, but it is a solution nonetheless. After all, you should want your waste to be given a new life instead of ending up in the landfill. Recycling can also be more accessible than reuse, especially because TerraCycle offers so many FREE national recycling programs, which you can check out here. If you're really serious about recycling and can afford to spend a little extra cash, check out their Zero Waste Boxes here or here if you want me to make some $$$. ;)
And if you want anything else from Earth Hero, please use my affiliate link and use code dragun10 on your order! The coupon code does exclude some items like Zero Waste Boxes, but it is good for most things.
#1 PETE - Polyethylene terephthalate
Most single-use plastic items have a #1, think water bottles and other beverage bottles if you didn't notice already. According to Waste Management's 2020 Sustainability report, PET/HDPE accounted for only 4.1% of the recycling stream. This isn't an all-encompassing number as there are other Waste Management companies, but none as big as them. If you want more data/stats check out their article here. But the most important lesson is if you see a #1, you are pretty safe to throw it in the recycling bin.
#2 HDPE - High-density polyethylene
Plastic #2 is another plastic that you are likely very familiar with; some products made out of this plastic are hair care bottles, laundry detergent, and pipes. You might not know that plastic is also used in some toys and chemical bottles, like bleach. Luckily, #2 is easy to recycle and commonly accepted in municipalities. Remember #2 is for recycling!
Pipes! PVC pipes are those big plastic pipes you can buy at Home Depot or Lowes. This plastic is very flexible and used for things like cling wrap, toys, and hoses. You might not know that virgin PVC contains various toxins that aren't really good for you. Another extremely disappointing fact about #3 is you will not be able to recycle it through your curbside collection. This means that a tiny percentage of this material is recycled; of course, you could most likely recycle it through TerraCycle's zero waste boxes. Since you know, TerraCycle recycles just about everything.
#4 LDPE - Low-Density Polyethylene
Like #3, #4 can be flexible and commonly used in squeezable bottles, plastic grocery bags, and other types of bags. If you were curious, #4 is considered fairly safe for use and not as harmful. Sadly, you cannot recycle this plastic locally. Fortunately, most supermarkets now have plastic bag drop-off recycling, and some beauty companies participate in TerraCycle's national recycling programs, which are free to use! So even though you can't throw these bottles or bags into your curbside bin, you can still recycle them fairly easily.
#5 PP - Polypropylene
Behind #1, this is the second most common plastic produced, according to Yes Straws. Examples of #5 plastic in use are chip/snack bags, diapers, and disposable food containers/utensils. Even though this plastic is commonly used, it is not commonly recycled. The chances are high that your local recycling center won't accept this plastic.
As previously mentioned, it is, of course, possible to recycle through TerraCycle.
#6 PS (Polystyrene)
Many of you know this plastic as styrofoam; it is a combination of petroleum and chemicals. It cannot be recycled municipally in most cases. It is actually one of the worst plastics you can purchase because of the chemical leaching. I would suggest reusing it as much as you can or finding places to recycle it near you.
As the name implies, #7 plastics are everything else. New plastics are included in this category that is controversial in the sustainable world, like plant-based plastics. More well-known examples of #7 are car parts, sippy cups, and different equipment types (medical, sport, dental). Since this category has multiple types of plastics, there is not a strict recycling guide for all of them. Although as a general rule, you will most likely not be able to recycle any of these in your curbside bin. That's not to say they aren't recyclable because they are through programs and privatized recycling.
Hopefully, this helped you understand what the numbers mean and what you can ~usually~ recycle at home. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the number, the more likely it will not be recyclable at home. Also, a fun fact about recycling is that all plastic is recyclable; it is simple economics that makes things unrecyclable at a local level. You should check with your county or waste management service what you can and can't recycle at home to be sure and get the most out of your service. And if you're still not sure if something is recyclable, it's best to throw it in the trash. Wishcycling is worse because it can prevent other items from actually being recycled. I didn't mention that glass, paper, and aluminum are definitely recyclable in most municipalities!
If you have any additional questions, let me know in the comments!