When we’re talking plastic, recycling is always in the conversation. If you look closely at most plastic, you’ll find recycling arrows somewhere, but that doesn’t always mean you can pop it in your curbside bin. There are numbers inside the arrows, 1 - 7. The most common numbers you’ll come across are #1, #2, #5 and #6.
What do these mean?
Plastic is a material created by chemical synthesis, which transforms organic materials, usually crude oil, into an easily moldable compound. Different processes and compounds create different types of plastic, which is denoted by the number code.
Know your plastics:
#1 = PET or PETE, Polyethylene Terephthalate - one of the most common types of plastic, usually clear, used to package and bottle water, fruit drinks, carbonated beverages, cleaners, shampoos, mouthwashes, some types of clamshells, and more.
#2 = HDPE, High-Density Polyethylene - another common type of plastic, usually opaque and more high-density that PET, used to package and bottle milk, detergents, shampoos, cleaners, and more.
#3 = PVC, Polyvinyl Chloride - often used to make blister packaging and sometimes shampoos and wash bottles, this type of plastic is rarely able to be recycled.
#4 = LDPE, Low-Density Polyethylene - you will usually come across #4 plastic in plastic bags, films and food wrapping.
#5 = PP, Polypropylene - one of the most stable, sturdy plastics, PP is used to make containers for yogurt, sour cream, to-go cups, food trays, containers for hot liquids, and more. While it is not as readily recycled curbside, there are other programs turning these single use items into great, long-lasting products. Take a look a Preserve’s Gimme5 program and locally, Precious Plastics of Alabama and the Find your 5s program.
#6 = PS, Polystyrene - considered to be one of the least stable plastics for consumer use, you will find Polystyrene in two forms: as a hard plastic as well as foam. Many to-go clamshells, single use food containers, condiment cups, many to-go sushi trays and CD cases are made with PS. Foam plates, cups, clamshells, egg cartons, and foam trays are made with PS. It has been shown that the “Styrene monomer can leach into foods and it's a possible human carcinogen, while styrene oxide is classified as a probable carcinogen.”  In light of this and the difficulty of recycling, we avoid #6 plastics as much as possible.
#7 = Other - any plastic that doesn’t fit in the above 6 categories is classified as “other,” often including bioplastics, electronics cases, some food containers and BPA.
So how do we recycle?
If we want to responsibly dispose of our waste, we have to know what to throw in the bin. Here are some steps to help you recycle well:
Check with your city
Find out what you can recycle by making a quick call to your city public services or waste management department, or check online. Most cities have a webpage outlining accepted recyclables.
In my area, we can recycle only #1 and #2 plastics curbside.
If you don’t have curbside service, find your local drop off site and how they accept materials.
If you want to know more about my visit to our local recycling center, check out my post Getting Up Close.
Only recycle accepted materials
If you throw in other plastics, it becomes garbage. If you bag your recyclables, they become garbage. By following recycling guidelines, you ensure the items are recycled and save recycling centers a lot of time, energy, and money.
Find other ways to recycle
Just because your curbside recycling doesn’t accept some materials doesn’t mean they have to be sent the landfill. There are many other programs and drop off sites to help you recycle even more:
Plastic bags and film recycling - When I head to shop for groceries, I grab my reusable bags and any plastic film I have collected. On the way in the door, I shove the plastic bags in the drop off bin. Most of these collections becomes composite lumber. Check out plasticfilmrecycling.org to find a drop off site near you.
Glass recycling - while some cities do collect glass, many do not. We take our glass to our local Target. Many cities have special drop off sites for glass.
Electronics recycling - many stores offer drop off sites for small electronics, so you can toss your old phones in the bin before you do your shopping.
Terracycle - you can send in dental care waste, collect and recycle k-cups, markers, pens, pencils, packaging, candy wrappers, so. many. things. Just visit Terracyles website and type in the waste stream you’d like to explore. Some programs are free, and some require the purchase of a zero waste box. Recycling isn’t always cheap…one more reason to reduce the waste we create. Check out more at terracycle.com.
So much more…just try a quick google search for something you’d like to recycle. There are battery recycling kits, tennis shoe recycling at Nike stores, car seat recycling at Wal Mart and Target,
Avoid non-recyclable plastics
When you are making purchases, take a few extra moments to look at your options. If it must come in plastic, try to find the most recyclable choices. Recently, my husband needed ice cream to complete his dessert. I know in our area, we can’t recycle the usual ice cream carton because it is coated cardboard, lined with a thin layer of plastic. I didn’t have time (or energy) to stop by an ice cream shop with a jar, which is a great zero waste option, so I chose the ice cream in the #2 plastic tub that can be reused or recycled.
Reduce your plastic consumption overall
The bottom line is, that while recycling is important and recycling well is essential, reducing plastic waste is top priority. Over 300 MILLION TONS of plastic is produced each year, half of that is for single-use, and the numbers are only going up. If we as consumers don’t choose plastic, and especially single-use plastic, companies get the message - alternatives will be created and less plastic will eventually be produced. Make your voice heard with your choices and your demands.
Image from https://ourworldindata.org/faq-on-plastics
For more on the chemical compounds, look here: https://science.howstuffworks.com/plastic4.htm
For more on how plastic is made, visit: https://www.plasticseurope.org/en/about-plastics/what-are-plastics/how-plastics-are-made