Originally Published on May 4, 2020. Last Updated on May 23, 2022.
Americans are recycling more and more plastic every year, and that’s great! We know recycling is good for the environment, so we fill our curbside bins with everything we think can be recycled… without checking first to see if we guessed correctly. Someone else will sort it out at the recycling facility, right?
Recycling or “Wishcycling”?
The practice of tossing any items in the recycling bin that we hope can be recycled (when they can’t be) is called “wishcycling”, and unfortunately, it does more harm than good. When you recycle something that’s unrecyclable (or even dirty) it’s possible that this one piece could contaminate the contents of the entire bin and everything would be rejected.
Wishcycling became a larger issue in the early 2000s when many communities switched from multi-stream recycling systems (where the consumer sorts their recyclable items into separate containers before they’re picked up) to single-stream recycling systems (where the consumer puts all recyclable items into a single container, and the items are separated after pickup at a materials recovery facility). The switch was done with the best of intentions, but it led to consumers forming the bad habit of wishcycling.
Fortunately, this habit is easy to break. All you need to do is a little research – and we’ve done some of it for you! Below is an easy guide that will help you learn about which plastics can be recycled — and which ones can’t — and how to recycle plastics correctly so they won’t be rejected at a materials recovery facility.
Keep in mind that recycling laws and regulations are different in every state, county, and city so the list below may not apply everywhere. To learn more about recycling in your area, check your local town or government’s website — a great resource we found is BeRecycled.org.
The Symbols Explained
Here’s a nugget of trivia for you: the recycling symbol was created in 1970 by a college student named Gary Anderson. It was the winning entry in a contest that was tied to the very first Earth Day.
This symbol is recognized all over the world. But you may have noticed that there are sometimes numbers inside the symbol. What does it all mean?
The number inside the symbol is called the resin identification code (RIC). RICs #1 through #7 refer to plastics, but the recycling numbers go higher and this is where it gets into metal, glass, paper, and other materials. We’ll stick with plastic for now.
Recycling Numbers 1-7 Breakdown
#1 PET or PETE — Polyethylene Terephthalate
- PET examples: soft drink bottles, water bottles, polyester fiber, clamshell containers, cake domes, deli containers, egg cartons, peanut butter jars, salad dressing containers, vegetable oil containers
- Can this plastic be recycled? Yes, PET can be placed in your curbside recycling container.
#2 HDPE — High-Density Polyethylene
This is the material we use at POLYWOOD to make our outdoor furniture!
- HDPE examples: milk jugs, detergent bottles, shampoo/conditioner bottles, buckets, totes, storage bins, bottle caps, household cleaner bottles, motor oil bottles, cereal box liners, butter/yogurt tubs, some grocery and garbage bags
- Can this plastic be recycled? Yes, HDPE can be placed in your curbside recycling container. Plastic bags, however, cannot be put in your curbside bin. They need to be recycled separately. Many grocery and department stores offer collection programs for plastic bags, although some have stopped due to the recent global restrictions that have been put in place on many types of recyclable plastics. So just do a quick search on the internet to find a collection spot near you, and the next time you’re out and about, take your plastic bags with you and drop them off at the store of your choosing. We found a great resource for this through Earth911.com.
#3 PVC — Polyvinyl Chloride
- PVC examples: chemical bottles, window frames, piping, wire jacketing, shampoo/conditioner bottles, cooking oil bottles, blister packaging, siding
- Can this plastic be recycled? No, this cannot be put in your curbside bin. Instead, reach out to your local government or recycling provider to see what you should do with it. They may be able to direct you to a designated collection center or company that accepts PVC.
#4 LDPE — Low-Density Polyethylene
- LDPE examples: squeeze bottles, tote bags, shopping bags, dry cleaning bags, sealable sandwich/snack bags, bubble wrap
- Can this plastic be recycled? Many communities don’t accept LDPE in curbside recycling programs, but some do — check with your local government or recycling provider to get the scoop. As mentioned before in the HDPE section, plastic bags can usually be dropped off at your local grocery or department store for recycling.
#5 PP — Polypropylene
- PP examples: prescription bottles, yogurt cups, butter/ice cream tubs, syrup bottles, dishware
- Can this plastic be recycled? Yes, PP can usually be put in your curbside bin.
#6 PS — Polystyrene
- PS examples: coffee cup lids, packing peanuts, video cassettes, CD cases, some clamshell containers, red solo cups, egg cartons
- Can this plastic be recycled? No, it’s best not to put this in your curbside bin with the other plastics… yet. PS recycling is slowly gaining momentum across municipal programs and separate collection sites across the U.S. so you should be able to find one by doing a search on the internet for a collection spot near you.
#7 O — Other
Including polycarbonate, polylactic acid, nylon, acrylic, and other plastics.
- O examples: multi-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials, signage, safety glasses,
- Can this plastic be recycled? Some curbside recycling programs may accept some #7 plastics, but you should first check with your local government or recycling provider to be sure.
How to Prepare Plastic Items for Recycling
Q: Should I clean my recyclables before putting them in my curbside bin?
A: Yes. Make sure plastic bottles and containers are free of food contamination. Rinse or scrape out old food and excess liquid and dry them. You don’t need to go crazy and scrub each piece with soap and water until they’re squeaky clean. This step is important because dirty items will be rejected.
Q: Why are dirty items rejected?
A: Grease, crumbs, and other leftover food particles can attract bugs, cause problems with equipment, and can make a recycling plant smell terrible. You know the smell of curdled milk, right? Imagine hundreds or even thousands of dirty milk jugs sitting in one spot for prolonged periods. Ew. One piece of contaminated plastic can contaminate the rest of the plastics in your curbside bin. So, take a few extra minutes to clean your recyclables and save the hard-working employees at the local recycling center or waste management plant some heartache.
Q: Should I leave labels on or take them off?
A: You can leave labels on; most recycling places have the technology these days to remove labels and the glue that holds them.
Q: What about lids and bottle caps?
A: There’s a hot debate as to whether lids and caps should stay on or be removed from bottles and containers. Seek that answer from your local government or recycling provider.
Q: Should I flatten my recyclables?
A: Yes, unless it’s glass, of course. Flatten and scrunch your recyclables. This makes more room in your bin and saves time for those who handle your recyclables once they’re collected.
New Label Removes Guesswork
Ever heard of the How2Recycle® label? If not, you may have seen this nifty label and not even known it. How2Recycle is an initiative that was started in the mid-2000s by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition® and is gaining popularity across North America.
The label has the familiar chasing arrows that we all know, but instead of a number in the middle of the symbol, clearly written instructions are included in the label. This removes the legwork and ambiguity that often frustrates consumers. We can now know:
- How to prep an item for recycling
- What material the item is made of
- What part of the item the label is referring to
- A specific chasing arrows symbol that indicates the recyclability of an item
- The How2Recycle website in case questions and further information is needed
Major brands and retailers such as Campbell’s®, LEGO®, Kohl’s®, Chobani®, and others are putting these labels on their products, and more brands are jumping on board as time goes by. This labeling system will undoubtedly become the norm soon — cross your fingers.
A Bit of History
The resin identification code was created by the Society of the Plastics Industry (now named Plastics Industry Association) in the late 1890s to help recyclers identify what plastic is used in a product or packaging. In 2008, ASTM International took over the administration of the RIC system and eventually developed their own standard practice a couple of years later — ASTM D7611 Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification — that is continually updated to meet the ever-changing needs of our society.
Below are some great sources we referred to when writing this post, check them out for more info!
- Recycling Basics from Republic Services
- Terms & Tools from Recycle Your Plastics
- Single-Stream Recycling and Resin Identification Code from Wikipedia
- One Very Bad Habit Is Fueling the Global Recycling Meltdown from Mother Jones
- A Smarter Label System from How2Recycle
- Recycling Search, Precycling Helps Shoppers Save, and China’s Recycling Ban: What Do We Do with Our Plastics Now? from Earth911