The Complete Guide to Plastic Recycling

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According to NPR, the average American disposes of 250 pounds of plastic waste per year. Unfortunately, most of it is going to a landfill rather than being recycled or downcycled. While a full-fledged zero-waste lifestyle might not be attainable for you, properly recycling your plastics is a step in the right direction.

Confused about what can go into this blue bin? Thats probably because its always changing.

What can be recycled is dependent on the market and the city government. If there is demand for these materials, then recyclers and companies will pay for you to recycle them. In addition, government regulations create opportunities for companies to recycle legally-mandated products, but each municipality is different.

Not all plastics have a market. To understand which ones do and what can be recycled, first, you should recognize what the plastic recycling numbers mean.

Plastic recycling numbers

graphic that shows the recycling key

You may have noticed that most plastic items have a number in a triangle on the bottom. This is an indicator of what type of material it contains and how to properly dispose of it.

#1 Polyethylene terephthalate

plastic recycling guide - type 1

Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PETE or PET, is one of the most common types of plastic.

This clear plastic is usually found in:

  • Water bottles
  • Soda bottles
  • Food packaging

Most curbside recycling programs will accept PETE. Recycled polyethylene terephthalate (or RPET) can be used to create new containers, pallet straps, carpet and clothing fibers.

#2 High-density polyethylene

plastic recycling guide - type 2

While high-density polyethylene (HDPE) may be similar in appearance to PET, it is a higher density so it requires different recycling machines.

HDPE is commonly found in:

  • Milk jugs
  • Personal care bottles
  • Trash bags
  • Butter or yogurt tubs
  • Cereal box liners

Curbside recycling programs usually accept HDPE plastics. They can be reused as detergent bottles, floor tile, pipe or fencing.

#3 Vinyl or polyvinyl chloride

plastic recycling guide - type 3

Have you heard of PVC pipes? These are made of polyvinyl chloride.

V or PVC is used in:

  • Piping
  • Cleaning product bottles
  • Cooking oil bottles
  • Clear food packaging
  • Windows
  • Medical equipment

This type of plastic can rarely be recycled. It may be accepted by plastic lumber makers who repurpose it into decks, paneling, flooring, cables, speed bumps or mats.

#4 Low-density polyethylene

plastic recycling guide - type 4

Despite this type of plastic being a lower density than PETE or HDPE, its harder to recycle. The recycling machines are prone to breaking down due to this soft and pliable material.

Low-density polyethylene or LDPE is usually found in:

  • Grocery bags
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Squeezable bottles
  • Tote bags
  • Clothing
  • Furniture
  • Carpets

While some stores will collect and recycle their shopping bags that are made of LDPE, this type of plastic is not usually recycled in curbside programs. Those specialty recyclers that do accept it are able to recycle it into trash can liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes and landscaping materials.

#5 Polypropylene

plastic recycling guide - type 5

Not sure if you should leave the lid on your water bottle? It depends on if your recycling program accepts polypropylene.

PP is most often found in:

  • Ketchup bottles
  • Yogurt containers
  • Drink lids
  • Drink caps
  • Straws
  • Medicine bottles

Some curbside recycling programs accept polypropylene. With it, they are able to make streetlights, battery cables, brooms, rakes, ice scrapers, bicycle racks and bins.

#6 Polystyrene

plastic recycling guide - type 6

Polystyrene is one of the more sturdy plastics, making it difficult to recycle unless the recycler has the proper machinery.

Polystyrene can be found in:

  • Disposable dishes
  • Meat trays
  • Egg cartons
  • Carry-out containers
  • Styrofoam
  • Medicine bottles
  • CD cases

Check with your curbside recycling program to see if they accept polystyrene or PS. If so, it can be reused as insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, rulers, foam packing or carry-out containers.

#7 Other

plastic recycling guide - type 7

This is a broad category that encompasses all other types of plastic. Curbside programs can't recycle type O plastics. Compostable plastic, labeled PLA, is one exception. While it can't be recycled, it is compostable.

How to prepare plastics for recycling

Proper plastic recycling can make a big impact. The following is a checklist, with resources that will guide you when trying to decide if an item can be recycled.

1. Find the plastic number

Look at the number on the bottom of the item to see what type of plastic it's made of. You may also notice a How2Recycle label that gives more specific instructions on recycling.

2. Check to see what your recycler accepts

Look online to see what types of recyclables your curbside service accepts. You can do this by googling, City name + curbside recycling requirements.

Some other resources for finding recyclers in your area:

3. Clean the item

Be sure the item doesnt have any dirt or food remnants on it. This will ensure that it doesnt attract bugs while in the recycling bin and make the recycling process easier.

4. Separate any non-recyclable items

Often times your items might contain different types of plastic. For example, a water bottle is made of type 1 plastic but the lid is type 6 and the label could be paper or a combination of plastics.

If your recycler doesnt accept one of these, be sure to separate it from the main product. If you cant separate them, they cant be recycled.

5. Recycle it!

Put it in the blue bin for your recycler to collect on the designated recycling day.

graphic that shows how to prepare items for recycling

Commonly confused items

Plastic bags

Plastic bags are usually a type 2 or 4 plastic. These types of plastics tend to cause issues. These bags often get wrapped around equipment and are prone to blow off of recycling trucks or recycling piles at the plant.

Youd be doing more good to save your plastic bags and recycle them at a bag-specific donation center. If you do decide to recycle them, make sure they are weighed down with other recyclable materials.

Bottle caps

Bottle caps are usually a type 5 plastic. This plastic causes issues because it melts at a different temperature than the rest of the plastic bottle (type 1 plastic). In addition, caps can shoot off when the bottle is pressurized at the recycling plant, causing harm to workers.

Due to these factors, the traditional advice was to remove bottle caps when recycling bottles. Unfortunately, removing them completely makes them hard to spot on the conveyer belt.

Today, technologies have advanced and recyclers advise to keep the bottle caps on so that they can be found and sorted properly.


Styrofoam is a number 6 plastic. Most recyclers dont accept styrofoam because it doesnt have a very big resale market. If your recycler does accept this plastic, be sure that its properly cleaned when you dispose of it. Styrofoam commonly attracts dirt or food remnants and then is sent to the landfill to decompose for 500 years.

The most sustainable option is to try to upcycle this styrofoam in your own home by reusing it.

graphic that shows commonly confusing recyclable items

Coffee cups

Coffee cups are made of paper and polypropylene film. This type 1 plastic keeps the liquid from dripping out of the cup as well as controls the temperature of your beverage.

Unfortunately, separating these materials requires a special machine that most recycling plants do not have. Since these cant be recycled, they end up in a landfill. To prevent this, try bringing your own coffee mug to a coffee shop for a more sustainable energy boost.

Juice boxes and milk cartons

Similar to coffee cups, these boxes and cartons are mainly made up of paper. However, they do contain a layer of plastic thats LDPE (number 4 plastic). This is very difficult to separate, so many curbside recyclers dont accept them.

Be sure to check if yours does. If it doesnt, consider purchasing these consumable items in different packaging that can be recycled.

infographic for plastic recycling

Printable plastic recycling guide

Each recycling facility has different equipment and markets for its plastics so there are variations in what they will accept. Look up what your facility accepts and then circle the recycling numbers.

Fill out the sections based on what your recycler accepts. Then, hang it by the recycling bin in your home, school or work so that you and your community can do a better job of recycling.

Be sure your apartment complex, school or work is up to date on their local recycling rules. Post one of these recycling guides (on recycled paper) next to your blue bin so you never forget what goes where.


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