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How To Recycle Plastic

☝️🤓 Quick Answer

To recycle plastic, follow these steps:

  1. Identify the plastic type by checking the product’s resin identification code (RIC). The most commonly recyclable plastics are PET (#1), HDPE (#2), and PP (#5).
  2. Prepare the plastic for recycling by cleaning it, removing non-plastic components, flattening bottles and containers, and separating plastics by type if required by your local facility.
  3. Find a recycling location, which can be curbside recycling, recycling centers, retailer recycling programs, or mail-in recycling programs. Use recycling locator tools like Earth911 or RecycleNation if needed.
  4. Depending on your local recycling program, place plastic items in the appropriate recycling bin, typically blue or yellow.

Alternatives to plastic recycling include reducing plastic consumption, reusing and upcycling plastic items, using biodegradable and compostable plastics, opting for plant-based plastics, adopting edible packaging, and donating unwanted plastic items to shelters or community programs.

What Do The Numbers On Plastic Mean?

The numbers on plastic are called resin identification codes, or RIC for short. Often found on the bottom of plastic products, they are represented by a triangle with a number inside. The numbers range from 1 to 7 and indicate the type of plastic used to make the product.

All RIC resin plastic type numbers and symbols
All RIC plastic numbers and symbols.

Here’s what each number means:

  1. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): Commonly used for beverage bottles and food containers. It is widely accepted for recycling and can be turned into new containers, clothing, or carpeting.
  2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene): Used for milk jugs, detergent bottles, and grocery bags. HDPE can be recycled into new bottles, plastic lumber, or outdoor furniture.
  3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): Found in pipes, window frames, and some food packaging. PVC is difficult to recycle due to its chemical composition and is often repurposed or landfilled.
  4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene): Used in plastic wrap, sandwich bags, and squeezable bottles. LDPE recycling is less common but can be transformed into plastic lumber or shopping bags.
  5. PP (Polypropylene): Used for yogurt containers, bottle caps, and straws. PP recycling is growing but still less common than PET or HDPE. It can be made into car parts or storage containers.
  6. PS (Polystyrene): Found in disposable cutlery, foam cups, and food service trays. PS is difficult to recycle due to its lightweight nature and can release harmful chemicals when heated.
  7. Other (Mixed Plastics): A mix of different types of plastics that are not easily recyclable. These are often turned into plastic lumber or other low-grade applications.

It is important to note that just because a plastic item is labeled with a resin number doesn’t mean it is recyclable. The number plays a significant role in the item’s recyclability, but it is not the deciding factor.

What Plastic Types Can You Recycle?

Recyclable Plastic

The most common recyclable plastic types are:

  • #1 – PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate
  • #2 – HDPE – High-Density Polyethylene
  • #5 – PP – Polypropylene

The plastics I listed above are universally considered recyclable in almost all countries. Since they represent the majority of usage, most recycling technologies evolved around them.

Non-Recyclable Plastic

These plastics are typically discarded in landfills or used as fuel in incineration plants for Waste-to-energy purposes. While curbside recycling programs rarely accept them, specialized facilities can successfully process them.

Typically non-recyclable or very hard-to-recycle plastics:

  • #3 – PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride
  • #4 – LDPE – Low-Density Polyethylene
  • #6 – PS – Polystyrene
  • #7 – Other

Since not all products have a resin code, you might have a hard time sorting out unwanted waste. I’ve seen it many times. You start getting into recycling but eventually get discouraged because there are so many rules and limitations you literally can’t keep up.

To help you understand a bit better what not to throw in the curbside recycling bin, here are some actual real-life examples:

  • Plastic bags and film: These can get tangled in recycling equipment, causing damage. Many grocery stores have designated bins for plastic bag recycling or reuse them as trash bin liners.
  • Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene): This material is not widely recyclable due to its low value and difficulty in transportation. However, some specialized facilities do accept it. Try to minimize your use of Styrofoam and opt for alternatives like paper or biodegradable packaging.
  • Compostable or biodegradable plastics: These require specific conditions to break down and should not be mixed with traditional plastics. Instead, dispose of them in a compost bin or a facility equipped to handle them.

How To Prepare Plastic For Recycling

Properly preparing plastic can help ensure it is effectively recycled and doesn’t end up in landfills. Here are some tips for preparing plastic for recycling:

  • Clean the plastic: Rinse the plastic container with water to remove any food or beverage residue. If the plastic is particularly dirty, you can use a small amount of dish soap to clean it.
  • Remove non-plastic components: If the plastic has any non-plastic components, such as metal caps or labels, remove them before recycling. These non-plastic components can contaminate the recycling process and reduce the quality of the recycled plastic.
  • Flatten bottles and containers: This saves space in recycling bins and makes transportation more efficient. It also allows facilities to process larger quantities of plastic at once.
  • Separate plastics by type: If your local facility requires them, sort them according to their categories. This ensures the recycling process is more efficient and yields high-quality end products.

Remember that those rules are not absolute and can vary depending on location and facility. Always check with your local recycling program for specific guidelines and requirements.

Where Can You Recycle Plastic?

Plastic recycling programs can vary by region, but here are some common places where you can recycle plastic:

  • Curbside recycling: Many cities and towns offer curbside recycling programs, where you can leave your plastic recyclables in a designated bin or bag, which they will pick up along with your regular trash. Check with your local recycling program to see if they offer curbside recycling for plastic.
  • Recycling centers: Some communities have recycling centers where you can drop off your plastic recyclables. These centers may accept a wider variety of plastic than curbside recycling programs, so it’s a good idea to check with them before recycling.
  • Retailer recycling programs: Some retailers, such as grocery stores or home improvement stores, have recycling programs for plastic bags and other types of plastic. Look for recycling bins in these stores, and follow any instructions or requirements for recycling.
  • Mail-in recycling programs: Some companies offer mail-in recycling programs for plastic, where you can send your plastic recyclables to a designated address. Check online for companies that provide this service and follow their instructions for recycling.

If you have difficulty locating a place to recycle your plastic waste, you can always use a recycling locator tool like Earth911 or RecycleNation. They are completely free.

Which Bin Is Used For Plastic Recycling?

The color of the bin used for plastic recycling can vary depending on the recycling program in your area. However, plastic items are usually placed in a blue-colored recycling bin, with some countries like Australia and New Zealand using yellow. These bins are marked with recycling symbols.

Picture of a yellow and blue recycling bins
Blue and yellow are the most common (plastic) recycling bin colors.

What Are Some Alternatives To Plastic Recycling?

Several alternatives to plastic recycling can help reduce plastic waste and minimize its environmental impact. Some of these alternatives include:

  • Reduction: Reducing the overall consumption of plastic products is an effective way to limit plastic waste. You can achieve this by using reusable items, purchasing products with minimal or no packaging, and opting for alternatives made from sustainable materials.
  • Reuse: Reusing plastic items, such as containers and bags, can extend their life and decrease the demand for new plastic products. Upcycling plastic items into new and creative uses can also be a practical alternative.
  • Biodegradable and compostable plastics: These plastics break down faster in the environment than conventional plastics, reducing their long-term impact. However, it is crucial to dispose of them properly, as they may not degrade as intended in landfill conditions.
  • Plant-based plastics: Some plastics are derived from renewable resources like corn, sugarcane, or potato starch. These bio-based plastics can have a lower carbon footprint and potentially be more sustainable than petroleum-based plastics.
  • Edible packaging: Innovations in the packaging industry have led to the development of edible packaging materials made from seaweed, mushroom, or other food-based substances. These materials can literally be eaten (or composted), reducing plastic waste.
  • Donations: Places like homeless shelters, animal shelters, or community programs will gladly accept your unwanted plastic containers, bowls, and bags. They can use them as storage spaces or feeding plates. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.