**This post was originally published September 2019 and has been updated for accuracy.
Calling a water bottle, a grocery bag, and your phone case all “plastic” is like naming a wolf, coyote, and your pet yellow lab all “dog.” Plastic is a family of materials, each with different qualities, uses, and avenues to recycle.
To alleviate our collective confusion, in 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry implemented the Resin Identification Coding system—a designated number that manufacturers could stamp on their product (usually molded on the bottom) to indicate what type of plastic it was. Their hope was to raise our dismal national recycling rates for plastic from less than 1% (1980).
Unfortunately, this system relied on a knowledge that American businesses and consumers didn’t have. Counting from one to seven was something we learned in grade school; attributing them to plastics was not. The symbols have no meaning to us—telling polyethylene apart from polypropylene doesn't matter if you don't know which your waste service will accept and recycle.
That’s where we can help. Even if you never learn their names, their chemical makeup, or the recycled products they can return as again and again, knowing the numbers is the easiest way to become a better recycler.
So, print and hang this infographic in your office kitchen or above the bin, and read on as we demystify the seven plastic recycling symbols.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (No. 1 PETE / PET)
Whether you realize it or not, your business probably consumes a mountain of PETE (also called PET) plastics. PETE is a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic that’s usually used for single-use food and drink packaging, like soda and water bottles, salad dressing bottles, and peanut butter containers. Recycling PETE bottles and jars can create new plastic containers, furniture, carpet fibers, and winter jackets.
is polyethylene terephthalate recyclable?
Polyethylene terephthalate is fully recyclable and the most common plastic in circulation. Yet, the U.S. recycling rate for it is only around 30% each year. These plastics, branded with a ‘1’, are widely accepted by most curbside recycling programs. Just rinse out any food residue and dry the items before placing in your bin or business’s dumpster!
High-Density Polyethylene (No. 2 HDPE)
HDPE is another common type of plastic found in many household products like milk jugs, cleaning containers, and shampoo and detergent bottles. HDPE is ideal for these types of consumer products because it’s lightweight but durable. These products are commonly recycled into pens, toys, engineered lumber, outdoor furniture, and traffic cones.
IS High-density polyethylene RECYCLABLE?
HDPE is easy to recycle, and according to recent studies, can be recycled up to 10 times for new products. ‘2’ containers are typically accepted in most curbside recycling programs, and as with all recycling, you should ensure they’re clean, rinsed, and dry before tossing to prevent contamination.
Polyvinyl Chloride (No. 3 PVC or V)
Polyvinyl chloride, commonly referred to as “vinyl” or “PVC,” is very versatile and usually found in piping, medical equipment, plastic gloves, building products, water-resistant clothing, and some food packaging. Vinyl is ideal for these types of products because of its strong, durable, and flexible properties. When recycled, vinyl is used to make binders, window frames, gutters, flooring, and fencing.
is polyvinyl chloride recyclable?
Polyvinyl chloride contains hazardous chemicals that are known to be poisonous to humans. Because of its many chemical additives, vinyl/PVC products are extremely difficult to recycle and are not commonly accepted through curbside recycling, explaining the 0.5% recycling rate. Instead, reuse or repurpose ‘3’ plastics, as they’re long-lasting and durable. Or, check with your waste hauler to learn about nearby drop-off recycling centers.
Low-Density Polyethylene (No. 4 LDPE)
LDPE is best known for its use in shopping bags, squeezable bottles, furniture, clothing, and frozen food packaging. Its flexibility and low weight makes it convenient for packaging purposes but extremely difficult to recycle at most facilities (more on that below). When recycled, LDPE creates compost bins, paneling, trash can liners, floor tiles and shipping envelopes.
is low-density polyethylene recyclable?
The same qualities that make LDPE useful for bags and six-pack rings make it difficult to recycle, frequently jamming or damaging recycling equipment. Do not recycle LDPE curbside or in your business’s commingled dumpster. As a preferred route, many retail stores are equipped with drop-off boxes, or you can look up nearby recycling centers that accept them.
Polypropylene (No. 5 PP)
Polypropylene is rigid, tough, and resistant to moisture, grease, and chemicals. This type of plastic is commonly used for ketchup bottles, kitchen containers, straws, carpets, rope, and medicine bottles. When recycled, these products can create landscaping border stripping, brooms, bins, trays, and much more.
is polypropylene recyclable?
Polypropylene had been a commonly accepted plastic for most curbside recycling programs until 2018, when China stopped buying America’s recyclable waste. Now, the market for PP is considerably smaller, meaning many haulers have discontinued their programs. Confirm its acceptance with your service provider before recycling. If not, you can explore mail-in services like Gimme 5.
Polystyrene (No. 6 PS)
Polystyrene, often genericized “Styrofoam” in the U.S., is incredibly lightweight and commonly disposed of after a single use. It’s usually found in egg cartons, Styrofoam packaging, packing peanuts, disposable cups, and dinnerware. Polystyrene is inexpensive and easily produced, which makes it popular for manufacturing, but it’s difficult and inefficient to recycle.
is polystyrene recyclable?
Currently, polystyrene makes up about 35% of waste in U.S. landfills, and worse, it’s believed it takes one million years to decompose in a landfill, if ever. Polystyrene is rejected by nearly every curbside recycler, but there may be a business near you that collects it. The best course of action, however, is to avoid it—and we have some tips for using durable alternatives!
"OTHER" (No. 7)
“Other” refers to a miscellaneous category for all the plastics that didn't fit into the other six categories. Fiberglass, polycarbonate, plexiglass, nylon and acrylics fabrics—you name it. Common products under the ‘7’ symbol include baby bottles, sunglasses, water cooler bottles, DVDs, and sports equipment.
is "other" recyclable?
"Other" plastics like polycarbonate often contain BPA and LEXAN, which can be very harmful to human health if improperly disposed of. For those reasons, these products are not accepted curbside but are sometimes accepted by drop-off centers or mail-in programs.
**As different recycling facilities follow specific regional guidelines and regulations for the plastics they accept, always double-check with your local hauler.
Our hope, by filling you in on what number goes where, is that we can help raise our current plastic recycling rate, which hovers around 8.7% year over year in the U.S. At the same time, your company can start leveling up your zero-waste efforts in an era where sustainability will be directly tied to profitability.
To learn more about how recycling more can cost your business less, let us tell you about The RoadRunner Way.