Have you ever found yourself finishing something in your fridge and wondering if the package you are left with is recyclable? You’re not alone. You and countless others run into this issue constantly. Often people resort to wish-cycling, which refers to wishing or hoping the item you are placing in a recycling bin is recyclable. Unfortunately, this frequently ends up resulting in recyclables being contaminated with things that are in fact not recyclable. It might not seem like a big deal for a few things to slip through and contaminate a collection of recyclables, but it is. It often results in the entire lot being rejected and sent to a landfill or incineration. That’s a lot of valuable resources wasted in my opinion.
One interesting thing about this wish-cycling behavior is people that care about the environment the most also end up doing it the most. Think about it. Is your uncle Larry that doesn’t give a rats-a** about the environment going to put in the extra effort to put something in the recycling? No. He’s just going to throw it in the trash with everything else. You on the other hand will likely hope the item is recyclable. However, I don’t want you to just hope. I want to educate you so you are able to know the difference and dispose of these things correctly.
The first step to making sense of recyclables is starting with something that is often mis-recycled: Plastic. Plastic is one of those things that a lot of people just assume is recyclable, but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of varieties that are in fact recyclable though. The best way to start to learn the difference is to start taking note of those recycle codes on the bottom of your packages. So here is a brief overview of the 7 categories and their codes.
A super common code you will see is the #1, which is often just called PET, polyester, or its full name polyethylene terephthalate. This is the most common material used for things like water and soda bottles. This is also one of the most recyclable items you will see. It can both be recycled (turned into another bottle) or up-cycled (used for components in jackets and carpeting). Whenever you see this logo on a package, it’s safe to say it can be recycled.
#2 is also a super common code you will see. This code represents High Density Polyethylene. It is used for rugged containers like laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, or even grocery store bags. Although those items are recyclable, they are not always recyclable in your curbside recycling bins. Things like the milk jugs and detergent bottles are both recyclable at home, but HDPE flexible packaging should be taken to a store drop off. Flexible packaging refers to anything that’s really thin and malleable such as grocery bags or pouches.
The #3 code is probably one you don’t see as often. PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. This is the same PVC that, you guessed it, PVC pipes are made out of. It is also used for things like garden hoses, blood bags, and those really annoying packages that scissors come in that require scissors to open (blister packs). While PVC can be very valuable to our day-to-day lives, its not so recyclable at the moment. In fact the vast majority of recycling facilities won’t accept PVC in their recycling. The chloride, or chlorine, component can be hazardous to work with once they break it down.
The #4 recycling code represents LDPE or Low Density Polyethylene. This a small variation in chemical structure that leads to some different properties. These changes lead to LDPE mostly being used for bags such as bread bags or even squeezable bottles. Just like with HDPE (#2), although LDPE is recyclable, only rigid containers are recyclable at your typical curbside. Well its unfortunate flexible packaging likes bags and pouches can’t be recycled on the curb, you can collect those items at home and drop them off at store-drop off locations.
The #4 recycling code is for PP, or Polypropylene. This plastic is often used for things like bottle caps, tubs (such as cool whip or sour cream containers), or straws. PP can often be recycled curbside, but this varies from area to area so its best to check with your local waste facility. The most recent information I have seen says to leave items like caps attached because when they are loose in recycling they can easily get mixed with other materials.
We’re almost there, only a couple more codes to go..
The last of the solid material types is #6 PS, or Polystyrene. This is what styrofoam is made out of. So it is used for the takeout containers, foam in shipping boxes, as well as things like plastic utensils. This is another plastic that is not recyclable and thus should always be tossed in the trash if you see it. One trick I use to remember this number is because the abbreviation is PS, I think of “P.S.” at the end of a letter to remember this is the last solid material code.
The last recycling code is #7 and really just refers to everything else. Often times manufactures will layer multiple plastic materials together to get the best properties from each of them and those will be listed under a #7 code. This code can also refer to other plastics not listed in the other 6 codes. Items with this code on them are never recyclable. There is simply no way for recycling facilities to separate the different materials out. Items such as baby bottles, fiberglass, or even small bags/pouches can be labeled #7.
Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what to do when you see these numbers on the bottom of your packages. Try to see if you can find these numbers on the packages you use in your day to day life. Remember to clean and empty anything you put in the recycling bin and that not all plastic is recyclable. These numbers are there to help you sort out what goes where. When the wrong thing ends up in the recycling bin it can lead to a lot of extra trash and waste being created. Feel free to reach out to your local trash/recycling provider to check their rules. If you don’t see a number, toss it in the trash. It’s safer that way. There’s an easy rule to follow here: When in doubt, throw it out!