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What do those number symbols on plastic really mean? And why are the numbers inside the triangles so small? Find out which plastics are safe, which may leak chemicals, and how to recycle plastic with our Plastics Identification Chart.
Interestingly, the number symbols you see inside triangles on plastic bottles and containers were not meant to help us identify which ones to recycle. This number system was started by the Society of Plastics Industry (SPI) to identify the plastic resin content. Maybe that’s why the numbers are so hard to see!
It gets more complicated because every local recycling facility collects different types of plastics, and you need to contact your recycling center to know which plastics get collected.
Bottom-line, there are seven types of plastics. Generally, most recyclers accept plastics #1 and #2. Plastics #3 to #6 are more difficult to recycle, and some recycling centers do not process them. Plastic #7 is even more challenging to recycle and is almost always excluded.
Here are the seven standard classifications for plastics and the recycling and reuse information for each type.
Did your eyes glaze over with that chart? To help, here is more information about the different types of plastics to better understand which ones are safe and which are toxic for food and drink consumption.
#1: PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
Water bottles and plastic soda bottles are the most common containers made out of PET. It’s OK to recycle.
However, avoid reusing plastic containers made of PET. Why? PET is meant for single-use applications; repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth. Plus, it’s hard to clean or remove harmful chemicals. PET may leach carcinogens.
#2: HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)
Most milk jugs, detergent containers, and oil bottles are made from HDPE. It’s a very common plastic and one of the safest to use. It’s also fully recyclable.
#3: PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC is used for plastic food wrapping because it’s soft and flexible. Most consumer recyclers will not take PVC products. Also, avoid reusing PVC products, especially when it comes to food or for children’s use. They contain toxins that leach throughout their entire life cycle.
#4: LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)
LDPE is usually what plastic bags are made from. You’ll also find LDPE in shrink wraps, dry cleaner garment bags, and other items.
Though most plastic bags are not recyclable, some companies and recycling centers have found alternatives or are investigating how to recycle plastic bags, given their harmfulness to the environment.
LDPE is reusable and safe to repurpose.
#5: PP (Polypropylene)
Polypropylene plastic is used in margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, cereal bags, and more.
Polypropylene is recyclable, although many recyclers still don’t accept it. PP is considered safe for reuse.
#6: PS (Polystyrene)
Avoid polystyrene as best as possible. It’s used for disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out containers, packing peanuts, and more.
Polystyrene is not generally recyclable and accounts for about 35% of US landfill material. Because it breaks apart so easily, it’s often found inside marine animals’ stomachs and littering our beaches.
Avoid reusing polystyrene. Polystyrene’s chemical compounds have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction. Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially when heated in a microwave).
#7: Polycarbonate, BPA, and Other Plastics
Assume that nothing with the #7 number can be recycled or reused. BPA can leak chemicals. It’s an xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor.
We hope this article has helped introduce the different types of plastics. It’s undoubtedly a little more complicated than it needs to be!
Consider this last question: A kid buys a plastic beverage bottle. It’s tossed in the trash and buried in a landfill, where decomposing will take over 400 years. However, if that beverage bottle is recycled, it can be transformed back into the same plastic pellets used to make it in the first place.
Yes, it still takes some energy to recycle, but this bottle’s life is not over, and it is part of a “cycle” in which natural resources do not go to waste. Before you toss something in the trash, ask yourself: “Is this really garbage?”