Sometimes it seems like everything in modern America is made of plastic. The versatile material is in our cars, toys, packaging, clothing, home goods, food utensils, and so much more — but it's also littering our streets, clogging our waterways, and choking marine life. In fact, says 32% of plastic packaging ends up in our oceans every year.
Many plastics can be readily recycled, but according to , 91% of plastic has never even been recycled. With all the different rules and symbols, it can be confusing for consumers to figure out exactly how to recycle it. For starters, every town and city has different recycling programs. "The markets for recyclable materials are changing all the time, which means there are times when your recycling program may change what it collects," says Mike Brown of , one of the GolfHr Institute's environmental consultants. Even if there isn't a way for your town to recycle a certain material, he says there's still a chance they might collect it anyways and either store it or dispose of it.
Plus, not everything can be put into recycling bins. If your workplace has separate containers for trash, plastic, and paper, you might need to put some extra thought into what goes into each. (For example, a coffee cup with a cardboard sleeve and plastic lid may require each component to go in a different bin.)
There's also the risk of cross contamination. Just because your food came in a plastic container doesn't mean you can immediately dump it in the recycling when you're finished eating. "If the plastic clamshell that you just had your lunch in has some leftover food, the food has to go into trash and the container needs to be rinsed before placing into the recycling bin," says Birnur Aral, Ph.D., Director of the Health, Beauty & Environmental Sciences Lab at the GolfHr Institute.
Of course, the symbols themselves need explaining, too. While the universal plastic resin symbol (three arrows forming a triangle) remains the same, the numbers inside make a significant difference. Here, you can find out what each symbol means, along with examples and how to recycle it.
PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common plastic for single-use bottled beverages, because it is inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to recycle. It poses low risk of leaching breakdown products. Recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), though the material is in high demand by manufacturers.
Found in: soft drinks, water, ketchup, and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; salad dressing and vegetable oil containers
How to recycle it: picked up through most curbside recycling programs
Recycled into: polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, bottles and food containers (as long as the plastic being recycled meets purity standards and doesn't have hazardous contaminants)
HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many goods.
Found in: milk jugs; juice bottles; bleach, detergent, and other household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; some trash and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; butter and yogurt tubs; cereal box liners
How to recycle it: picked up through most curbside recycling programs, although some allow only those containers with necks
Recycled into: laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fencing, shampoo bottles
V (vinyl) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is tough and weathers well, so it is commonly used for piping, siding, and similar applications. PVC is cheap, so it's found in plenty of products and packaging. Because chlorine is part of PVC, its manufacture can result in the release of highly dangerous dioxins. Also never burn PVC, because it releases toxins.
Found in: shampoo bottles; cooking oil bottles; blister packaging; wire jacketing; siding; windows; piping
How to recycle it: rarely recycled; accepted by some plastic lumber makers
Recycled into: Decks, paneling, mudflaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats
LDPE (low density polyethylene) is a flexible plastic with many applications. Historically it has not been accepted through most American curbside recycling programs, but more and more communities are starting to accept it.
Found in: Squeezable bottles; bread, frozen food, dry cleaning, and shopping bags; tote bags; furniture
How to recycle it: LDPE is not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities will accept it. Plastic shopping bags can be returned to many stores for recycling.
Recycled into: trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, floor tile
PP (polypropylene) has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that must accept hot liquid. It is gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers.
Found in: some yogurt containers; syrup and medicine bottles; caps; straws
How to recycle it: Number 5 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.
Recycled into: signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays
PS (polystyrene) can be made into rigid or foam products — in the latter case it is popularly known as the trademark Styrofoam. Styrene monomer can leach into foods and it's a possible human carcinogen, while styrene oxide is classified as a probable carcinogen. The material was long on environmentalists' hit lists for dispersing widely across the landscape, and for being notoriously difficult to recycle. Most places still don't accept it in foam forms because it's 98% air.
Found in: disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc cases
How to recycle it: Number 6 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.
Recycled into: insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers
A wide variety of plastic resins that don't fit into the previous categories are lumped into number 7. Polycarbonate is number 7, and is the hard plastic that has parents worried these days, after studies have shown it can leach potential hormone disruptors. PLA (polylactic acid), which is made from plants and is carbon neutral, also falls into this category.
Found in: three- and five-gallon water bottles, 'bullet-proof' materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon
How to recycle it: Number 7 plastics have traditionally not been recycled, though some curbside programs now take them.
Recycled into: plastic lumber, custom-made products