What do The Recycling Numbers Mean?

Plastic, plastic, plastic! You know it’s not good for the environment, and you know that you can recycle a lot of things, but you’re not sure which plastics can and can’t be recycled.

In this post, I hope to clear up some of the confusion, so that you can continue to recycle and do your part in being as eco-friendly as possible. The recycling numbers meaning are actually pretty straightforward and easy to understand once you learn what they represent.

What do the recycling numbers mean for you?

The number inside the recycling logo you see on the bottom of the plastic packages is a resin code that determines how the package can be recycled and also explains what the plastic is made of.

The good news you don’t have to memorize these for every country as they are recognized throughout the world. The numbers inside the recycling logo range from one to seven, with each number representing a different type of plastic.

The bad thing is the molecular makeup of each plastic doesn’t always mix with other molecular compositions of the other numbered plastics, so they can’t be recycled together. In short, you can’t just mix throw all the plastics into a big witches brew and recycle them together.

The other little know fact about the recycling symbol on the bottom of packaging doesn’t mean you can actually recycle the product. It’s just an indicator of what kind of plastic the manufacturers use for that particular product.

How to know what plastics can be recycled

The recycling symbol is widely known.

The most widely accepted plastics for recycling are numbers 1 and 2, also most of the plastic containers are types 1 and 2. Every town and city has different recycling programs, so you’ll have to check your location’s rules to find out exactly what you can recycle. Of course, the symbols themselves need explaining, too. Here’s what each plastic recycling symbol means, along with examples it’s found in and how to recycle it.

Plastic Number 1  Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE)

This is the most common plastic for single-use bottled beverages because it’s inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to recycle. Commonly found or used in the following:

  • bottled water, soda, juice, beer
  • peanut butter
  • mouthwash bottle
  • cooking oils
  • medicine containers
  • salad dressing bottles
  • microwaveable food trays

How to recycle plastic number 1

Most municipalities have curbside pickup for these kinds of plastics. Be sure the containers are rinsed out and pretty clean.

Plastic Number 2 High-density polyethylene (HDPE)

Recycle number 2 is usually recycled by local cities.

It’s a very common plastic and one of the safest to use. It’s also fully recyclable. Commonly found or used in the following:

  • milk jugs
  • detergent containers
  • oil bottles
  • shampoo bottles
  • some toys
  • some shopping bags
  • fabric softeners
  • butter and yogurt tubs

How to recycle plastic number 2

Again, most municipalities have curbside pickup for plastic number 1 and 2, as they are fully recyclable.

Plastic Number 3 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

What does recycle number 3 mean? It's made of PVC.

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) is tough and weathers well. PVC is inexpensive, so manufacturers use it often to keep prices down. Commonly found or used in the following:

  • plastic food wrapping
  • shower curtains
  • meat and cheese wrappers
  • some bottles
  • plumbing pipes
  • cooking oil bottles
  • baby bottle nipples
  • clear medical tubing
  • window spray bottles

How to recycle plastic number 3

Most consumer recyclers will not take PVC products. Avoid reusing PVC products, especially when it comes to food or for children’s use. They contain toxins which leach throughout its entire life cycle.

Plastic Number 4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

What does recycle number 4 mean? It's a LDPE.

LDPE is usually what plastic bags are made from. Typically not viewed as dangerous as number 3 since they don’t contain the same level of toxicity, but can still contain butane, benzene and vinyl acetate. Commonly found or used in the following:

  • shrinkwraps
  • dry cleaner garment bags
  • six-pack rings
  • hard drive casings
  • CD and DVD cases
  • grocery, frozen food, bread, and sandwich bags
  • and some bottles.

How to recycle plastic number 4

LDPE is not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities might accept it, so check with your local recycling rules/regulations or recycling center. Some companies and recycling centers have found alternatives or are investigating how to recycle plastic bags given their harmfulness to the environment.

Plastic Number 5 Polypropylene (PP)

What does recycle number 5 mean? It's considered microwave safe.

PP is the second most widely used produced plastic. It’s light and heat resistant and very sturdy. Thus making it microwave safe but only in the sense that heated product will not be deformed in the microwave Most commonly found or used in:

  • margarine containers
  • yogurt containers
  • potato chip bags
  • cereal bags
  • pails
  • dishes
  • candy containers
  • and lab equipment

How to recycle plastic number 5

PP is considered safe for reuse, which is good because most recycling centers don’t accept plastic number 5. I say most because there are some communities that do allow for plastic number 5 to be included in their recycling.

Plastic Number 6 PS Polystyrene, or Styrofoam

What does recycle number 6 mean. It's typically made of Styrofoam and not recyclable.

Plastic number 6 is horrible. It can leach into foods and is a possible human carcinogen, while styrene oxide is classified as a probable carcinogen Commonly referred to as styrofoam. Most fast-food chains, including McDonald’s, phased out polystyrene for sandwich containers more than 20 years ago. Do not reuse and do not place it in the microwave. Commonly found or used in the following:

  • packing peanuts
  • styrofoam cups and coolers
  • take-out containers
  • egg cartons
  • disposable cutlery
  • meat trays
  • aspirin bottles
  • compact disc cases

How to recycle plastic number 6

It’s best to stay away from plastic that is labeled number 6. Polystyrene is not generally recyclable and accounts for about 35% of US landfill material. While generally not accepted in recycling facilities, check with your local rules/regulations.

Plastic Number 7 Polycarbonate, BPA, and others

What does recycle number 7 mean? It usually means it's unknown and not recyclable.

Plastic number 7 is a big question mark. It’s generally accepted that plastic number 7 is not recyclable. If plastic doesn’t fit into the other 6 categories then it falls into plastic number 7. Commonly found or used in the following:

  • 5-gallon buckets
  • sunglasses
  • DVD’s
  • computer cases
  • signs and displays
  • oven-baking bags

Which plastics are microwave safe?

As you can tell, while a lot of products are made from plastic, they’re not all the same plastic. In general, it’s best not to reheat consumables in plastic, but to instead place them in a glass or ceramic. If you’re going to use plastic containers to reheat products follow the guidelines below.

Plastic 3, 6 and 7 not safe for microwaves

Avoid putting type 3 PVC, type 6 polystyrene, and type 7 polycarbonate into a microwave oven. They are potentially carcinogenic and may leach Bisphenol A, a potentially deadly toxin, into the food. This includes Styrofoam, type 6.

Safest plastic for microwaves

Plastic number 5 is considered microwavable safe. This plastic is sturdy and heat resilient. After being microwaved, the plastic feels cool. 

Plastic 1, 2 and 4 it’s a gamble

These plastics can be microwave-safe when used in conjunction with chemicals that prevent the plastic from melting. They tend to be heat resistant but not to high-heat food safe. Again, it’s best to place consumables in glass or ceramic vs taking chances with plastics that could leach toxic chemicals into your food. Consider some CorningWare or Pyrex the next time you want to nuke your leftovers.

What should you do with plastics that have the recycle symbol but no number?

Unfortunately, anything with a recycle symbol is a meager attempt by the manufacturer to show that it might be recyclable, depending on where you live. In most cases, any plastic with no number is a good indication that it can’t be recycled and belongs in the trash. If there’s no number the recycling plant won’t know which plastic-type was used to make the plastic, which in turn means they won’t know which plastic-type to recycle it with.

Wrapping up the meaning of recycling numbers

All sorts of manufactures use plastics, and it’s tough to avoid using, just because it’s so woven into our way of living. When possible try to reuse the plastics that are safe to do so with. Additionally, look at the recycle number on the bottom of products and try to use plastics that are easily recycled or can be reused. You’ll notice that some of the same products are listed on different recycling numbers. These lists are not all-encompassing and only serve as examples. Finally, check with your local rules/regulations about what can and can’t be recycled. Some communities accept some plastics and the more you can recycle the better.

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