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Almost everyone understands the importance of recycling. However, what often gets lost in the message is that recycling isn’t enough: You have to recycle right. The industry even has a term for those of us who toss items in our recycling bin willy-nilly – “aspirational recyclers.”

But, even though our intentions might be good, we may be doing more harm when we do it wrong.

  • Dirty containers can contaminate an entire load.
  • Thin plastic film can thwart machinery.
  • Entire loads can be turned back because they were not sorted properly.

Plastic can be particularly tricky since there are so many different kinds, not all of which are recyclable. In fact, because the market for plastic scrap has plummeted, recyclers are becoming choosier about the material they’ll take.

And that can cause confusion among consumers. Here’s what you need to know.

Sorting Through the Numbers

You’ve probably noticed the numbers on the bottom of plastic items and wondered what they meant. They refer to the resin content of products, which indicates whether they can be recycled or not. The Resin Identification Code was developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry in the 1980s and continues to be updated as needed. One change was the symbol that encapsulates the number: What used to be a “chasing arrow” triangle, which indicated recycling, is now a solid triangle since not all plastics are recyclable.

Which plastics are recyclable? Consider this your “plastics recycling cheat sheet” so you know what to recycle and what to avoid. Remember that rules may be different in your municipality, so use these guidelines as a starting point. Also, always make sure your plastic is clean – food waste can contaminate entire recycling loads.

Green Light for Plastics Nos. 1 And 2

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) plastics (No. 1): These include soda and water bottles, plastic food jars, like peanut butter or salad dressing, and cleaning products. Check your state laws since many states like Oregon and Michigan will give you 10 cents back for your recyclable beverage containers.

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastics (No. 2): A bit thicker than PETE plastic, HDPE plastics are used for soap bottles, milk and juice jugs, butter tubs and cereal bags, among others.

Yellow Light for Plastic Nos. 4 and 5

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) plastics (No. 4): LDPE plastics are those that are used for most plastic shopping bags, frozen food bags, bread bags and aseptic packaging. Check with your community recycling center to see if they take this type. Plastic grocery bags have become a particular problem as the thin film can wind around the sorting machinery. In fact, many municipalities have banned them. You’ll probably notice that most grocery stores have a bin in front where you can dispose of your leftover bags. (Pro tip: They can also be helpful as trash can liners rather than purchasing new ones.)

Polyethylene (PP) plastics (No. 5): If you warm your syrup in the microwave before putting it on your waffles and pancakes, chances are the bottle is made from PP plastics. The unique trait of PP plastics is that they can withstand high heats, which makes them ideal for heating up leftovers. Other plastics can leach harmful chemicals into the food when heated. Other typical uses of this plastic are for medicine bottles, yogurt containers, straws, bottle caps, disposable cups and plates. 

Red Light for Plastic Nos. 3, 6 and 7

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or V) plastics (No. 3): Most people associate PVC with the plumbing pipes in your home. However, PVC is used for a variety of other materials, such as siding, windows, some shampoo bottles, furniture, toys and more. PVC can emit harmful fumes when heated, which is why it is rarely recycled.

Polystyrene (PS) plastics (No. 6): You’d probably recognize PS plastic as your disposable coffee cup (you likely call it Styrofoam, but that’s actually a trademark), clamshell carry-out container or foam egg carton. Like PVC, polystyrene plastics emit toxic fumes, making them difficult to melt down for recycling and therefore are rarely accepted for recycling.

Other (O) plastics (No. 7): This category doesn’t have a specific name because it’s actually a combination of the above plastics. These plastics may contain bisphenol A (BPA), which has raised potential health concerns. This plastic is used to make CDs and DVDs, eyeglasses, baby bottles and other plastic items, but it’s not recyclable.

When Plastic Is Not Fantastic

The important thing to remember about sustainability is that “recycling” is actually the “third R” after “reduce” and “reuse.” So, while recycling is smart, reducing or reusing is even better. Here are five ways to green your life:

  • Bring your own reusable grocery bag to the store. (But wash it frequently, please! One study found that 99% of reusable bags had bacteria.
  • Fill your own water bottle rather than buying plastic disposables.
  • Buy in bulk – everything from cleaning products to food, as long as you can successfully use the product before it goes bad.
  • Tote reusable containers and utensils rather than single-use plastics.
  • Avoid plastic straws. In fact, a straw ban is quickly gaining acceptance worldwide as awareness grows of their danger to sea life.

The bottom line is that recycling plastics can help the environment, but it takes a little education to do it right.

What are some ways you reduce, reuse and recycle at home? Let us know in the comments below?

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