Recycling plastic: what do the plastic recycling numbers mean?

Have you ever looked at the bottom of a plastic item and tried to decipher what the plastic recycling numbers mean? You’re not alone. Recycling is confusing and many local councils and governments report large amounts of wish-cycling. That’s when people put items in their recycling collection that aren’t actually recyclable at that location. 

While wish-cycling is usually well-intentioned, it can interrupt the recycling process and contaminate other recyclable materials. But fear not, eco friend. You’ll soon be an expert on plastic recycling numbers. Let’s get into it. 

Plastic recycling

Recycling is a very location-dependent activity so it’s difficult to say definitively whether you can or cannot recycle something. The best way to find out is to check your local government or council website where you’ll most likely find a list of the types of materials that are accepted in curbside recycling. There also may be other information about locations of specialist recycling of things like appliances, electronics, clothing and other plastic types. 

Plastic recycling number 1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)

Plastic #1 is often used in plastic bottles that hold liquids such as soft drinks, juice and cooking oil. As well as food containers and bottles. It’s the easiest type of plastic to recycle and can be turned into new bottles or polyester fibres. PET is accepted at most recycling services that recycle plastic. 

Plastic recycling number 2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Plastic #2 is usually opaque in appearance. It’s found in things like milk bottles, cleaning product bottles and personal care bottles for things like shampoo, body wash, hand wash and moisturisers. HDPE also found in children’s toys and some plastic bags. Polyethylene is cost-effective to recycle and is usually widely accepted for recycling. HDPE can be recycled into things like picnic tables, pens, fencing, detergent bottles and waste bins. 

Plastic recycling number 3 – Vinyl (PVC)

Plastic #3 is found in a wide range of plastic items from food wrap to plumbing pipes. Most water pipes are now made from PVC. It’s also found in food trays for things like fruit and sweets as well as the clear plastic wrapping we find so much food packaged in these days. PVC is dubbed the “poison plastic” because it contains toxins such as phthalates that can leach throughout its entire lifecycle. Plastic #3 isn’t generally recyclable and less than 1% of PVC material is recycled. While some PVC may be collected, it’s probably sent to landfill or downcycled, because it isn’t considered safe to recycle. 

Plastic recycling number 4 – Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Plastic #4 is usually found in squeezable bottles, crushed bottles and soft plastics such as bread bags and sandwich bags. LDPE is what most plastic shopping bags are made from. It’s also found in clothing and carpet. 

It can be recycled but isn’t commonly done so. In fact, wrongly adding soft plastic items and bags to your recycling when it’s not accepted can cause major problems in recycling centres and jam machines. If taken to specialist recycling centres and drop-offs, plastic #4 can be turned into things like floor tiles and bin liners. 

Don’t forget to Pin this guide for later. While you’re there, connect with me on Pinterest!

Recycling plastic: what do the plastic recycling numbers mean?

Recycling plastic can be confusing. While less than 9% of all plastic has ever been recycled, it best to know which plastic can be recycled. 

Placing the wrong type of plastic in recycling can lead to big problems at the processing center and jam recycling machines.

Plastic recycling number 5 – Polypropylene (PP)

Plastic #5 is found in furniture, luggage, toys and in certain parts of cars. It’s also found in a lot of paper food products to allow them to hold liquid and grease. This thin layer of plastic is why paper food packaging and paper coffee cups aren’t recyclable. It’s also why they work at doing what they need to do. I mean, can you imagine trying to hold coffee in a paper cup if it didn’t have a plastic lining?

PP isn’t a widely recycled material in most places. But if you can find a recycling point, plastic #5 can be turned into things like battery cases, brooms and bins – and is considered safe for reuse. 

Plastic recycling number 6 – Polystyrene (PS)

Plastic #6 is thankfully on the way out of favour. It’s most commonly used for takeaway “clamshell” containers, vending cups, foam packaging inserts and foam peanuts. Polystyrene may leach a possible human carcinogen called styrene into food products, especially if put in the microwave. Plastic #6 is not generally recyclable but may be dropped at some specialist recycling centres. 

READ NEXT: Why glass is BAD for the environment

Plastic recycling number 7 – Other

Plastic #7 is a catch-all term for any plastic types that don’t fit under the other 6 numbers. It includes acrylic, nylon and fibreglass and is commonly used to make baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles and car parts. #7 also covers plastics known as polycarbonate which are known to leech the endocrine disruptor BPA into foods and drinks. #7 also covers “biodegradable” plastics that are marketed as compostable. These are not generally recyclable and often require industrial composting, not home composting, which can be a tough service to find so they’ll likely end up in landfill. 

Which plastic recycling numbers are considered safe and unsafe?

You’re probably aware that many types of plastic can leach harmful chemicals into whatever is inside them. This is particularly worrying when it comes to food, drinks and personal care items. 

Plastic numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 are considered to be the safest of the types of plastic. But you still avoid heating, freezing and leaving these types of plastic in direct sunlight if they contain food or personal care products. Whereas plastic numbers 3, 6 and 7 are known to potentially leech chemicals such as BPA into their contents. It’s best to avoid these when it comes to products you’ll ingest or use on your skin. 

My final thoughts on recycling plastic 

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while now, I’m sure you know my thoughts on plastic. I’m on a mission to see the end of single-use plastic with my sustainable business CONCENTR8ED. I don’t believe the answer to the current plastic crisis is better recycling. Especially because we know that less than 9% of all plastic ever made has been effectively recycled. Even if we managed to bump that number up, plastic is not infinitely recyclable. This means it’s going to end up in landfill at some point after it’s created and cannot be part of a circular economy. 

We need to turn the tap off on plastic production like yesterday. And plastic is all around us. Some people aren’t as phased about plastic pollution as others. Most of the plastic that I sort and recycle is from other people in my household, friends, work colleagues etc. So knowing which plastic is and isn’t recyclable helps me to do this effectively. 

Eco Action Step

Your eco action step for this week is to find out which types of plastic and materials your local home recycling collection accepts. Better yet, share that information with friends, family and your community to help stop them from wish-cycling. Recycling plastic isn’t the answer to the plastic crisis, but we may as well effectively sort if for our curbside recycling to ensure it gets the greatest chance possible.

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