Plastic Container Recycle Numbers, What do they mean?

Plastic Container Recycle Numbers, What do they mean?

The recycle symbol, called chasing arrows, was created in 1988 by The Society of the Plastics Industry. They set the standard for a common language for both the consumer and the plastics industry to use for the purpose of identifying plastic types. The flaw was the average consumer was not educated in what chemicals are in each type of plastic and why some plastics are not recycled. On the other hand manufacturers are still neglectful in using plastics that consumers are not allowed to throw in their home recycle bin. Recycle Numbers 1 and 2 are the most common recycle numbers consumers can recycle, but many products need to be made from Recycle Numbers 3 and 5. The sad part of the story are Recycle Numbers 6 and 7. Items should never be made from these type of plastics and you should do your best to avoid purchasing products packaged in Recycle Numbers 6 and 7 plastics. Lets look at all of the Recycle Numbers individually to understand the purpose of these Recycle Numbers and what we can do as consumers to promote less trash in our landfills by being educated consumers and by making an effort to recycle.

Recycle Numbers 1 PETE and 2 HDPE are both a polyethylene product and are actively being recycled. PETE 1 is polyethylene terephthalate. This plastic was originally created as shatter proof container to replace glass bottles for safety reasons. It is a flexible plastic commonly made into containers that can be squeezed like salad dressing bottles, 2 liter bottles and the water bottles we drink from every day. It is also used in medicine containers, the backing for photography film and is one of the layers in Mylar balloons. Mylar balloons are not recyclable because they also contain aluminum. Common products that are made from recycled PETE (1) are carpets, polyester fiberfill and it is incorporated into fabrics that are made into clothing.

Recycle Number 2 HDPE is a high-density polyethylene and is commonly used in larger containers like milk and water jugs and colored containers such as liquid detergent and shampoo bottles. It is also found in many children’s toys and even in modern day bullet proof vests. You will find most plastic grocery bags made from Recycle Number 2. Grocery bags often can be taken to your local grocery store for recycling. How often are they returned to the store? An even better idea then returning plastic grocery bags is to purchase reusable grocery bags made of fabric take them into the store every time your shop. HDPE is easily recycled into other containers. The colored version of HDPE is commonly recycled into plastic lumber.

When recycling food containers with Recycle Numbers 1 or 2, think beyond the environment, rinse out containers which have food clinging to them. Foods which have dried in the container can contaminate the recycling machines causing the recycling unnecessary expense to maintain their machines.

Recycle Number 3 V is Vinyl also known as polyvinyl chloride aka PVC. Vinyl could be recycled in its pure form, but it is usually not cost effective to collect for remanufacturing. Items made from Recycle Number 3 are food packaging, shrink wrap, plastic food wrap, baby bottle nipples, shower curtains, plumbing pipes, vinyl siding on houses, vinyl dashboards in cars and is also use to make linoleum flooring. Polyvinyl Chloride PVC is unique because it not only resists water penetration it is also fire resistant. The Chloride is what makes it flame resistant. When fire or heat is applied to PVC it releases chlorine and chlorine prevents combustion. Plastic food wrap and plastic warp used on products we purchase are not recyclable and are rarely reused. It contributes greatly to our landfills.

Recycle Number 4 LDPEA is a very commonly used plastic by consumers, that is not recycled when it could be. LDPE means low-density polyethylene and is used to make flexible products like bread bags, zip close food storage bags and our more modern day plastic wraps. It could be and sometimes is recycled into plastic bags and plastic lumber, but the average American Trash Company does not collect this light weight plastic because of economics. What a shame. The cost to collect, sort and truck it to a company who will recycle it into another usable product is too high to make recycling Recycle number 4 plastic feasible. As consumers we should try to avoid using this landfill stuffing if possible.

Recycle Number 5 PP is Polypropylene. Reusable food storage containers like Rubbermaid and Tupperware are made from Polypropylene along with yogurt and margarine tubs, syrup bottles, outdoor carpet and diapers. Some things we do not want to recycle like diapers, but when you and baby are at home you could use cloth diapers and save the disposable diapers for outings. As for yogurt, margarine and syrup bottles, I wish we could recycle them, but it boils down to economics just like Recycle Number 4 LDPE. When Polypropylene is used in large industries Recycle Number 5 PP is currently being recycled, but the home consumer does not have the option to recycle products made with Polypropylene. Unfortunately it takes 20,000 years for Polypropylene Recycle Number 5 to decompose in landfill conditions but will decompose faster if exposed to harsh elements such as the sun. Polypropylene Recycle Numbers 5 does not contain Bisphenol-A (BPA).

Recycle Number 6 PS is Polystyrene. Products made from solid polystyrene Recycle Numbers 6 PS are compact disc jackets, disposable plastic eating utensils and take out food containers. Then there is the expanded form of PS. We know it as Styrofoam. It is used as a semi rigid packing materials, coffee cups, take-out food containers, meat trays, and egg cartons. It is cheaper to produce Polystyrene from newly extracted oil then it is to collect and recycle used products. Polystyrene and Styrofoam is resistant to oxidation. There are no organic components in it so no organisms can eat it. If in conditions where it is exposed to a harsh environment it could breakdown in about 50 years, but in the landfill environment where it gets buried and undisturbed it will not break down or decompose.

Recycle Number 7 “Other” is made from any combination of any kind of plastic including Polycarbonate plastic. Polycarbonate plastics are typically hard and clear. The manufacturer of this “Other” plastic does not have to define what type of plastics is in their product. It is not recyclable even though it has a recycle Recycle Number. The caps and lids of recyclable bottles are usually made from Recycle Numbers 7 so do your recycle company a favor and remove the caps from your recyclable containers before throwing the container in the recycle bin. Look at the bottom of that ketchup bottle before you buy it. The manufacturers of ketchup bottles have bounced between Recycle Numbers PETE (1) and OTHER (7) over the last few years. What is their problem? I would not buy a product in a Recycle Numbers 7 bottle if there is the same product packaged in recycle numbers 1 or 2 which is recyclable. Some, but not all, Recycle Number 7 plastics contain Bisphenol-A (BPA). Learn more about BPA and which products may have BPA in their plastic in our article: Bisphenol-A in Plastics.

How long does it take for different compounds to decompose under favorable conditions?

It takes an apple core 2 months

A styrofoam cup 50 years

An aluminum can 200 years

Monofilament fishing line 600 years

A newspaper between 3-4 months

A bleach bottle 70 to 80 years

A small margarine container 35 years

A metal can 100 years

Glass never decomposes. Although it can be worn away when exposed to harsh elements.

A plastic bottle 450 years. Petroleum is released into the earth when plastic breaks down.

Recycling everything that can be recycled is extremely important because our land fills are managed in a way that prevents the conditions that are necessary for plastic, glass and metal to decompose. Land fills are lined with plastic to prevent toxic chemicals from contaminating the ground water and the surrounding soil. This is why it is so important for you as a custodian of our planet to buy products packaged in containers that are recycled by your local recycle company. Most commonly recycled plastics are Recycle Numbers 1 and 2 as well as all glass and steel containers. Call your local recycle company and ask them what they allow in the recycle bin and what they don’t if your are not sure. To not know is not being earth friendly.

Let us all be wise consumers and responsible with this knowledge.


Gaudreau Environment, Inc.

Department of Polymer Science | University of Southern Mississippi


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