The widely recognized “chasing arrows” triangle symbol is synonymous with recycling, but just because a plastic product features this symbol does not mean that it is recyclable. Confusing, right? The truth is actually hidden in the little number in the center of the triangle.
Inside each triangle is a number between one and seven. Each number refers to the type of plastic used in the product. Unfortunately, most people aren’t fluent in the plastic code language, so they don’t know which objects are recyclable and which aren’t.
Not all plastics are created equal. There are a number of plastic-based products that cannot breakdown, and therefore, cannot be recycled. By understanding the code, you will understand how to dispose of your plastics.
The Seven Standard Plastic Classifications
#1 – PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
PET is among the most commonly used materials in custom plastic containers and other consumer products. It is typically found in beverage bottles and packaging, and is only intended for single use applications because repeated use will increase the risk of bacterial growth and leaching. PET is recyclable; in fact, 25% of bottles and other plastic bulk containers made from PET are recycled in the U.S. today.
CONCLUSION: Recycle, but do not reuse.
#2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)
HDPE is considered to be one of the safest types of plastic. It is also one of the most commonly seen plastics in industrial plastic recycling. HDPE is a stiff material used to make sturdier custom plastic containers like milk jugs, detergent bottles, and oil bottles. It is also used in the construction of picnic tables, park benches, truck bed liners, and other products that require strong weather-resistance and durability.
CONCLUSION: Recycle and reuse.
#3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC is soft and flexible. It is typically used to make clear food wrapping, blister packaging, and toys for both children and pets. Other applications include plumbing parts, pipes, window frames, and garden hoses. Unfortunately, PVC contains numerous toxins that can leach after time. That is why all products containing PVC must be made from virgin material.
CONCLUSION: Do not recycle. Reuse sparingly, and never reuse for food applications or for children’s use.
#4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)
Shrink wraps, squeezable bottles, and some plastic bags contain LDPE plastic. It is considered one of the less toxics types of plastic; however, it is not commonly recycled. When it is recycled, LDPE is usually used for plastic lumber, garbage can liners, or floor tiles.
CONCLUSION: Reuse, but only recycle at certain collection services. Not all recycling services accept LDPE.
#5 – PP (Polypropylene)
PP plastic is lightweight but incredibly tough. It is heat-resistant and serves as a great barrier against moisture and chemicals. It is typically used in cereal boxes, disposable diapers, bottle tops, yogurt containers, straws, and rope. Right now, only three percent of PP products are recycled in the U.S.
CONCLUSION: Reuse, but only recycle at certain collection services. Not all recycling services accept PP.
#6 – PS (Polystyrene)
PS is lightweight and easily-formed. Applications include Styrofoam cups, clamshell food containers, egg cartons, and plastic picnic cutlery. It can also be used to create rigid foam insulation. Unfortunately, PS can leach styrene, which is dangerous to humans, so it is not usually recycled or reused.
CONCLUSION: Do not use, reuse, or recycle.
#7 – Other
This category includes polycarbonate (PC) and other plastics. Most of these plastics have the potential to leach chemicals into food or drinks packaged in these containers. They may also include BPA, which is a known endocrine disruptor. Custom plastic containers labeled with the #7 should be avoided.
CONCLUSION: Do not use, reuse, or recycle.
Many custom plastic containers and other products made from plastics are manufactured by rotational molding. According to recent reports, between 80 and 90% of all material used in the rotational molding industry is made of polyethylene (HDPE, LDPE and LLPDE), which we now know is recyclable.
Always check the number on a plastic item before throwing it in the recycling or trash.