You’ve probably grown used to the small triangular symbol on plastic products. But you might not realize that this symbol indicates the type of plastic it is - it doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is recyclable or reusable. That depends on your local recycling program’s policies.
To ensure that you are recycling what can be recycled, it’s important to understand the seven different plastic classifications.
Often found in water bottles, some cooking containers, and many other consumer products and packaging, this plastic is only meant for single use. PET plastic is recyclable and can be used to make new PET bottles or polyester fiber for clothes and textiles.
This durable plastic is used for stiff containers like milk jugs and laundry detergent, weather-resistant objects like picnic tables and trash bins, as well as toys and some plastic bags. HDPE plastic is both recyclable and reusable.
This soft plastic makes up clear plastic food wrapping, certain cooking bottles, toys, and blister packaging used for wrapping pharmaceutical and consumer goods. PVC plastic is not recyclable but can be reused for certain applications aside from food or children uses.
Used for plastic grocery and bread bags, shrink wrap, garment bags and certain bottles, this plastic is easily reusable but only recyclable if your local collection service specifically accepts it. If your community’s recycling program does take this uncommonly recycled plastic, it can be turned into plastic lumber, trash can liners and floor tiles.
Durable yet light, polypropylene is used for disposable diapers, straws, some food containers and bags, packing tape and rope. Depending on its use, polypropylene can be safely reused. Just like LDPE, this plastic is not commonly recycled, but can be transformed into battery cases, brooms or bins if accepted by your recycling program.
Found in products ranging from disposable cups, cutlery, egg cartons and take-out containers to packaging, home insulation and underlay flooring, this ubiquitous plastic easily breaks down to pollute the environment and impact humans and the environment. Although technically possible to recycle and reuse, many recycling programs do not accept this plastic.
Compromising all polycarbonates and ‘other’ plastics such as acrylic, nylon and fiberglass, this category covers plastics used for baby bottles, water cooler bottles and food containers. Because of this variety in material, reuse and recycling is non-standardized for this category. However, most #7 plastics should not be reused and are not accepted in recycling programs.
To add confusion to this miscellaneous category, you might see some compostable plastics (developed as a substitute to polycarbonates) marked with ‘PLA’ or ‘Compostable’ in addition to their #7 symbol. These bio-based plastics are not recyclable but can instead break down in a compost.
In general, the lower the number, the more widely recycled and recyclable it is. If you do have to buy plastic, the ‘best’ to use is #2 HDPE. Given its material resilience and safety in terms of not transmitting chemicals, HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic.
However, recycling plastics might be seen as the last resort – especially given that only 9% of the world’s plastic has been recycled. Instead, try to refuse, then reduce, reuse and repair your used plastics before heading towards the recycling bin.