The numbers on your recyclable plastics are somewhat of a mystery for most people. From one to seven, many people assume that these numbers all mean the same thing. However, the complexity of plastic recycling is much more than you might think.
Continue reading to find out the different meanings of these numbers and what you can do with them!
Plastic Recycling Symbols And Numbers Explained
The plastic recycling symbols and numbers from one to seven get connected to different types of plastic and materials used in plastic production, making them more or less valuable as recyclable materials. Each of the seven plastics has a specific name and is used to make various everyday products.
When it comes to recycling, not all plastics are created equal. In fact, some recycling centers won’t accept specific numbers of plastic recycling. Read on for a complete guide of plastic recycling symbols, and numbers explained!
Plastic Recycling Numbers And Symbols
The types of plastic recyclables got created with numbers one to seven.
Furthermore, each of these numbers tells you something about the composition and recyclability of the plastic that the container or product gets made from.
The symbol for each is a triable made of arrows which is the international sign for recyclable material.
Additionally, the number of plastics recyclables was created in the 1980s when fewer plastic products were on the market.
The addition of the #7 “Other plastic” category is a catch-all for the plastics of the world which do not fit nicely into any of the first six categories of plastic polymers.
Since plastics each have a different distinction categorized by the seven numbers within the arrow triangle, they should all be recyclable.
However, some are generally not recyclable, such as:
- Certain products within each of the numbered categories
- Soiled plastic items
- Plastics that are not numbered
Defining Each Numbered Plastic
Detailed in the next section, you will find a short description about each of the seven types of plastics along with:
- The characteristics of the plastic
- Everyday products that each plastic polymer material gets made out of
- How recyclable the plastic category might be
#1 PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
One of the most common plastic containers in your kitchen is the #1 PETE recyclable plastic container.
Most water, oil, and other bottled liquid food containers are made from #1 PETE plastics.
Furthermore, these containers made from #1 PETE are all recyclable.
This widely used plastic is a thermoplastic polymer resin that is generally clear in coloration.
Sadly, #1 PETE is not intended for multiple uses. The porous structure of the plastic makes it safe for food storage and susceptible to being damaged by cleaning agents.
Additionally, cleaning and reusing these bottles causes carcinogenic leakage into whatever gets stored in them after cleaning.
Luckily, #1 PETE plastics are easy to recycle and are accepted at virtually every recycling center.
Furthermore, the plastic containers are then turned into polyester fibers used in many consumer products, including:
- Stuffing fill for sleeping bags
- Fleece clothing
#1 Plastics are so common and easily used for recycling into other plastic products that they are also a valuable commodity.
For example, in California, a single bottle could get you ten cents at a recycling center.
Another extremely common type of plastic is the #2 HDPE. Common containers made from #2 HDPE are:
- Bleach products
- Cleaning products and sprays
- Even shampoo and conditioner bottles
- Laundry detergents
- Milk jugs
These containers made from #2 HDPE plastic are all recyclable.
This incredibly versatile and common plastic material is made from high-density polyethylene and is usually added with color agents.
These color agents create milky and sometimes solid colors for containers like detergent.
Since these plastics are generally not transparent but milky in color, they are more widely used for solvents and cleaning products.
#2 HDPE plastics are almost as recyclable as #1 PETE plastics, however, some of the products and containers made from this plastic are not easily recyclable.
For instance, some recycling collection centers will only take and recycle plastic #2 HDPE containers with lids.
Also, other products, such as some shopping bags made of #2 plastics, are not recyclable, though some stores will collect the bags and recycle them for you.
One of the more difficult plastics for recycling and finding recycling centers that accept it is the #3 PVC plastic material.
These vinyl plastic products and containers are more common than you think.
Further, things like fruit storage plastic “clamshells” and other food trays that are commonly used for keeping food fresh and undamaged are not regularly accepted at recycling centers.
Even though it is not regularly recycled, there are about one billion pounds of #3 PVC vinyl products recycled in the US and Canada every year.
Although consumer vinyl plastics only make up about 146 pounds of recycling, the number of #3 PVC plastics entering the recycling stream from consumers has steadily increased since 2014.
That still leaves almost 2 billion pounds of #3 PVC vinyl products that end up in landfills every year in the United States.
Therefore, even though this product is incredibly versatile, #3 PVC plastic is historically hard to recycle and frequently ends up in landfills.
These lighter plastics are commonly the material that plastic bags are made from and are not regularly recyclable at common recycling centers.
However, in recent years there has been an uptick in the number of centers that accept these thinner plastics, like:
- Plastic films
- Plastic bags
- Other thin plastic materials
Places like grocery stores commonly recycle plastic bags for the public.
However, you should also consider the process of recycling #4 LDPE plastic products before dropping them off at recycling locations. The steps in recycling plastic bags consist of:
- Remove the contents of the bags: Trash and scraps inside of plastic bags gum up the systems of recycling and make the whole process a lot more complicated. Make sure you remove things like receipts, stickers from fruit, and food scraps before dropping off plastic bags at a recycling location.
- Collect at home: Keep a garbage bag collection going at your home so that you save time and are more likely to recycle your plastic bags. For example, you will fit 50 to 100 plastic grocery bags in one garbage bag, so you might only turn them in every few months.
- Reuse when you can: Even if you plan to recycle your plastic bags, you always reuse the bag for other purposes or go back to the grocery store.
- Ensure they are #2 or #4 bags: Only #2 and #4 plastic bags get accepted for recycling. If you are uncertain about the plastic polymer used in the material of your plastic bag, simply reuse it as much as you can before depositing it into the garbage.
This is one of the more robust and heavy-duty plastics that are recyclable.
#5 polypropylene gets used in many household objects such as furniture, luggage, and toys.
Additionally, #5 polypropylene plastic products are also used for heavy-duty products such as bumpers on cars and plastic linings on vehicles.
Everything from lab equipment for scientists to Tupperware containers that resist the heat of your microwave gets made of #5 PP plastic.
There are many reasons why we use #5 PP plastic so much for heavy-duty products and these include:
- Resisting abrasive chemicals such as alkalis, most solvents, and even acids
- It is lightweight and strong
- It insulates electrical wiring and other electrical products very well and safely.
- Resists moisture incredibly well
- Very high melting point and excellent heat resistance without melting
Since #5 PP plastic materials are challenging to recycle, there are several ways of reducing and reusing this robust plastic.
Some of the best ways of reducing and reusing #5 PP plastics are:
- Don’t use single-serve food containers: Try not to use plastic #5 propylene products for food such as cups, plates, utensils, and straws. Eco-tableware that gets made from wood, bamboo, or palm leaves works just as well and is environmentally friendly.
- Use cloth diapers: Single-use diapers are made from #5 PP plastic materials and are a single-use item that you could go without if you used cloth diapers.
- Make your own food products: Not only is making your food products healthy, but it helps reduce the number of #5 plastic bottles you consume. Things like hot sauces, yogurt, and condiments are stored in plastic containers and could get made at home.
- Make Tupperware last: Read the instructions from Tupperware manufacturers so that you ensure that the Tupperware in your home stays usable for as long as possible.
- Buy recycled: Buy products that are packaged with recycled materials or made from recycled materials whenever you can.
Polypropylene #5 plastic is recyclable, but only for particular items.
Generally, bulky items like furniture require a unique recycling center for deposit.
Whereas other items like Tupperware are more likely recyclable at your local recycling center.
#6 PS plastic is called polystyrene and is often the plastic polymer used in single-serve food products.
Items such as straws, plastic utensils, and foam clamshell food containers often get made from #6 PS plastic.
However, #5 plastics usually get used for these single-serve products more often.
One of the most common uses for #6 PS plastic is in packaging.
For example, styrofoam is the soft version of #6 PS plastic, and it gets found in great abundance all across the globe.
Unfortunately, this styrofoam is not easily recyclable, mainly because it is delicate and breaks apart easily.
In addition, the small pieces of styrofoam are incredibly hard to manage and seriously contribute to plastic pollution in marine life.
This problem plastic is one of the worst for recoverability, meaning that even if your local recycler accepts this plastic, it is most likely thrown in the landfill anyway.
#6 Polystyrene is even banned by many restaurants so that they get a certification of being environmentally conscious businesses.
Furthermore, there are very few options for the #6 plastics at a recycling center, which is why they are usually sorted out from the rest of the plastic materials and then sent overseas.
These overseas recycling centers do one of the following with #6 plastics:
- Melt them down in #7 products
- Sorted out further for some recoverable plastic products
- Burned as fuel and heat
- Smaller pieces are too small and usually mixed, so they end up in the landfill
There have even been recalls on #6 plastics that have restaurants and other businesses eliminating the use of these plastics in their products.
The #7 Other plastic is a name for all other plastic types that may be recyclable and are not under the designation of the numbers one through six plastic polymer types.
Furthermore, #7 Other plastics include materials of plastic such as nylon and polycarbonate.
These plastics are difficult to determine if they are recyclable or not since there are so many different plastics under this number seven designation for recycling.
However, these polycarbonate materials under the #7 recycling designation are everywhere in our lives.
For example, some of the most common #7 Other plastic products in the world include:
- 3D printing materials
- Bulletproof glass
- CDs and DVDs
- Glasses, lenses, and other eyewear
- Greenhouse domes
- Guards for heavy-duty machinery
- Many different parts of cars, including dashboards, headlights, and sunroofs
- Medical devices like respirators and dialysis machines
- Powertool housings and casings
- Protective equipment such as padding and goggles
- Roofing shingles and sheets
The applications of #7 Other plastics are virtually limitless because they are strong, and, unlike many other plastic polymers on this list, they are clear or see-through.
In addition, the fact that light passes through many #7 Other plastics means that these products generally have long life spans and are usually not single-use products.
Making Plastics Identification Easier
The chart below has a list of the names for each of the seven plastics along with the everyday products that are often made from them:
|Number||Plastic Material Name||Everyday Products Made from Plastic Type|
|1||Polyethylene Terephthalate||Soft drink bottles, water bottles, fruit juice containers, cooking oil containers, other cooking ingredient containers|
|2||High-density polyethylene||Milk jugs, plastic spray bottles, laundry detergent containers, bleaching agents, shampoo, body wash, and conditioner bottles|
|3||Polyvinyl chloride||Thin plastic sweets trays or fruit trays, clamshells, plastic wrapping like bubble wrap, most food containers|
|4||Low-density polyethylene||Crushed bottles, shopping bags, most wrappings, highly resistant bags|
|5||Polypropylene||Furniture, consumers, luggage, bumpers, toys, lining, and external linings of cars|
|6||Polystyrene||Toys, hard packing, refrigerator trays, cosmetic bags, costume jewelry, CD cases, vending cups|
|7||BPA, Polycarbonate, and LEXAN||Acrylics, fiberglass, polycarbonate containers, nylon, etc.|
The Plastics That Cannot Be Recycled
Plastics seem like they are all recyclable. However, some plastic polymer materials have no recyclable value. These items include things like:
- Cereal bags
- And anything without the recycling symbols printed on them
Virtually all plastic garbage bags are non-recyclable, and even plastics that are soiled are not recyclable.
Therefore, the reason that many plastics are not recyclable is that they are not reusable.
These non-recyclable plastics get produced using a method that creates a lifelong bond between the plastic polymer bond.
This bond, known as a cross-bond, doesn’t break down and melt for reuse and won’t create new material no matter how hot it gets.
In the end, polymer bonds such as this stay in the ecosystem and cannot get recycled into other products or materials.
The rule with plastics is that if it does not have a recycling symbol and number, it is not recyclable.
So any plastic without a number in an arrowed triangle is an obvious sign that the plastic is not recyclable.
However, this plastic recycling symbol and the associated number system are based on the idea that the recycling centers get something of value from these materials.
In the end, even some numbered plastics get turned away at recycling centers.
#6 Polystyrene foam is the most common plastic that gets turned away or dumped in landfills from recycling centers.
So, in simple terms styrofoam is a non-recyclable plastic.
Therefore, even though the foam may have the #6 plastic recycling symbol on it, it has so little material when it is broken down that it is not accepted as recyclable material.
Although coffee cups seem like a no-brainer for recycling because they get made of paper, there is a lot more going on with their construction and recycling than you might think.
On the inside is a coating layer of #5 PP plastic which keeps your drink from leaking out of the paper cup.
Virtually all coffee cups have this coating, so it doesn’t matter if you go to Starbucks or Peet’s.
In the end, the only way of recycling the paper from your coffee cup and the plastic coating on the inside that acts as a moisture barrier is to separate the two materials.
Unfortunately, this is a complex and highly costly process that is not feasible or worth it for recycling centers.
Furthermore, last year alone the United States threw away over 16 billion disposable coffee cups.
Therefore, virtually all take-out coffee cups get sent to the landfill.
What Plastics Are Made From
The health effects of plastics are not entirely known, however, the basis for their production is apparent.
Plastics are a polymer that bonds together and gives plastic its unique and valuable properties.
However, many people are not aware that most plastics get made from a crude oil base, which means that plastic production is a significant greenhouse gas contributor.
Another common processing material is natural gas for making plastic.
Natural gas feedstock and other natural gas byproducts are the most common feedstock for plastic production in the United States.
Furthermore, most of these feedstocks for producing plastics come from petroleum refineries.
Even though natural gas might seem better for the environment than using crude oil for the production of plastics, each of these has many negatives.
As both of these materials main ingredients for plastic are problematic for the environment and contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions.
Why Plastic Recycling Is Important
Recycling your plastics is one of the easiest ways of limiting your carbon and pollution footprint on the Earth.
In addition, there are effects outside of your immediate community and own pocketbook that make recycling plastic incredibly important.
Recycling plastic is sometimes challenging, but you will make a difference in your community and even globally by doing simple things.
You will help with plastic recycling, reuse, and pollution by:
- Buying intelligent products made from or packaged in recycled materials
- Limiting your consumption of plastics overall
- Reusing plastic products and materials you already own
Overall, the most essential part of recycling plastics is limiting the production of plastic products.
Reduce Greenhouse Emissions
Using renewable energy, cutting the production of plastics and the emissions that creating them produces would considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, if all plastic got recycled in the world, it would reduce the carbon dioxide emissions by about 4.9 gigatons, which is a twenty-five percent reduction of emissions currently.
Lessens Ocean Pollution
Many of the plastic that is not recycled ends up in a landfill, however, a large number of plastics never make it into the recycling stream or landfill.
As a result, an estimated eight million tons of plastic garbage escapes into the oceans around coastal cities every year.
All of this plastic waste ends up as floating hazards for marine wildlife, which have to contend with it as obstacles and get tricked into eating it.
For example, it is known that nearly every species of sea bird eats plastic.
And with the threat of microplastics not only affecting the health and wellness of marine wildlife but our human bodies as well, the issue is reaching dangerous proportions.
With half of all plastics ever produced in the last fifteen years, this is a highly volatile issue choking the wildlife in the world’s oceans.
Unfortunately, this problem is getting exponentially worse, and there are few solutions in sight other than recycling efforts and limiting the production of current plastics industries.
Helps Push Innovation
Just because there isn’t a use for recycled plastics today doesn’t mean there won’t be some innovation tomorrow that makes plastic recycling that much better.
As a result, designers in every category globally get challenged with finding new and innovative ways of creating products that utilize recycled plastics.
Some of the most innovative ideas that make recycling plastics incredibly important are listed below:
- Plastic decking: Instead of chopping down trees and creating wooden decking, designers and contractors are beginning to develop recycled plastic planks for outdoor decking in homes and businesses. These recycled plastic decking planks are moisture-resistant, never rot, are less expensive than standard lumber, and help reduce plastic pollution.
- Car Interiors: Car designers need plastics for creating the sleek interiors of cars. Some car manufacturers have even begun using recycled plastic products in the trims, dashboards, armrests, and other interior components of their vehicles for fashionable and eco-friendly material choices.
- Artistic Pieces: Many artists see plastics as materials for their art. Not only are they using plastics as the medium of their craft, but they are helping to reduce pollution by reducing plastics that get thrown away into the landfill. These art pieces might seem like small use of recycled plastics, but they usually have a larger message about plastic pollution that helps educate and awaken the public to the plight of plastics.
To learn more, you can also read our posts on what plastics cannot be recycled, 37 revealing recycling facts that you need to know, and 17 recycling myths debunked.
Knowing the seven numbers and symbols of plastic recycling is necessary for all consumers. However, recycling is up to individual consumers as it is each person’s responsibility to choose to be environmentally conscious and recycle to help save our planet.
Hopefully, this article gives you the information you need to make informed decisions about plastic uses and products that use certain recyclable plastics. Remember that the recycling you do might seem small, but it could have a lasting impact on the global community in the long run.