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Plastics by the Numbers

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Understanding the differences between types of plastic will help you make better decisions in choosing and recycling plastics…

By Posted May 2, 2012

recycle-logosThe well-recognized “chasing arrows” symbol we see on plastic containers and products does not mean the product is recyclable. The little number inside the triangle tells the real story.

Within each chasing arrows triangle, there is a number which ranges from one to seven. The purpose of the number is to identify the type of plastic used for the product, and not all plastics are recyclable or even reusable. There are numerous plastic-based products that cannot break down and cannot be recycled.

Understanding the seven plastic codes will make it easier to choose plastics and to know which plastics to recycle. For example, water bottles that display a three or a five cannot be recycled in most jurisdictions in the US. A three indicates that the water bottle has been made from polyvinyl chloride, a five means that it’s been made of polypropylene, two materials that are not accepted by most public recycling centers.

Here are the seven standard classifications for plastics, and the recycling and reuse information for each type:

#1 – PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

#1-PET-plasticPET is one of the most commonly used plastics in consumer products, and is found in most water and pop bottles, and some packaging. It is intended for single use applications; repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth. PET plastic is difficult to decontaminate, and proper cleaning requires harmful chemicals. Polyethylene terephthalates may leach carcinogens.

PET plastic is recyclable and about 25% of PET bottles in the US today are recycled. The plastic is crushed and then shredded into small flakes which are then reprocessed to make new PET bottles, or spun into polyester fiber. This recycled fiber is used to make textiles such as fleece garments, carpets, stuffing for pillows and life jackets, and similar products.

Products made of #1 (PET) plastic should be recycled but not reused.

#2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE-plasticHDPE plastic is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent and oil bottles, toys, and some plastic bags. HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic and is considered one of the safest forms of plastic. It is a relatively simple and cost-effective process to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use.

HDPE plastic is very hard-wearing and does not break down under exposure to sunlight or extremes of heating or freezing. For this reason, HDPE is used to make picnic tables, plastic lumber, waste bins, park benches, bed liners for trucks and other products which require durability and weather-resistance.

Products made of HDPE are reusable and recyclable.

#3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC-plasticPVC is a soft, flexible plastic used to make clear plastic food wrapping, cooking oil bottles, teething rings, children’s and pets’ toys, and blister packaging for myriad consumer products. It is commonly used as the sheathing material for computer cables, and to make plastic pipes and parts for plumbing. Because PVC is relatively impervious to sunlight and weather, it is used to make window frames, garden hoses, arbors, raised beds and trellises.

PVC is dubbed the “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins which it can leach throughout its entire life cycle. Almost all products using PVC require virgin material for their construction; less than 1% of PVC material is recycled.

Products made using PVC plastic are not recyclable. While some PCV products can be repurposed, PVC products should not be reused for applications with food or for children’s use.

#4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE-plasticLDPE is often found in shrink wraps, dry cleaner garment bags, squeezable bottles, and the type of plastic bags used to package bread. The plastic grocery bags used in most stores today are made using LDPE plastic. Some clothing and furniture also uses this type of plastic.

LDPE is considered less toxic than other plastics, and relatively safe for use. It is not commonly recycled, however, although this is changing in many communities today as more recycling programs gear up to handle this material. When recycled, LDPE plastic is used for plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles. Products made using recycled LDPE are not as hard or rigid as those made using recycled HDPE plastic.

Products made using LDPE plastic are reusable, but not always recyclable. You need to check with your local collection service to see if they are accepting LDPE plastic items for recycling.

#5 – PP (Polypropylene)

PP-plasticPolypropylene plastic is tough and lightweight, and has excellent heat-resistance qualities. It serves as a barrier against moisture, grease and chemicals. When you try to open the thin plastic liner in a cereal box, it is polypropylene. This keeps your cereal dry and fresh. PP is also commonly used for disposable diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape and rope.

Polypropylene is recyclable through some curbside recycling programs, but only about 3% of PP products are currently being recycled in the US. Recycled PP is used to make landscaping border stripping, battery cases, brooms, bins and trays. However, #5 plastic is today becoming more accepted by recyclers.

PP is considered safe for reuse. To recycle products made from PP, check with your local curbside program to see if they are now accepting this material.

#6 – PS (Polystyrene)

PS-plasticPolystyrene is an inexpensive, lightweight and easily-formed plastic with a wide variety of uses. It is most often used to make disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out “clamshell” food containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging and those ubiquitous “peanut” foam chips used to fill shipping boxes to protect the contents. Polystyrene is also widely used to make rigid foam insulation and underlay sheeting for laminate flooring used in home construction.

Because polystyrene is structurally weak and ultra-lightweight, it breaks up easily and is dispersed readily throughout the natural environment. Beaches all over the world have bits of polystyrene lapping at the shores, and an untold number of marine species have ingested this plastic with immeasurable consequences to their health.

Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially when heated in a microwave). Chemicals present in polystyrene have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction.

Recycling is not widely available for polystyrene products. Most curbside collection services will not accept polystyrene, which is why this material accounts for about 35% of US landfill material. While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available, the market for recycling is small. Awareness among consumers has grown, however, and polystyrene is being reused more often. While it is difficult to find a recycler for PS, some businesses like Mailboxes Etc. which provide shipping services are happy to receive foam packing chips for reuse.

Polystyrene should be avoided where possible.

#7 – Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN)

plastic baby bottlesThe #7 category was designed as a catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and “other” plastics, so reuse and recycling protocols are not standardized within this category. Of primary concern with #7 plastics, however, is the potential for chemical leaching into food or drink products packaged in polycarbonate containers made using BPA (Bisphenol A). BPA is a xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor.

Number 7 plastics are used to make baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles and car parts. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic food containers often marked on the bottom with the letters “PC” by the recycling label #7. Some polycarbonate water bottles are marketed as ‘non-leaching’ for minimizing plastic taste or odor, however there is still a possibility that trace amounts of BPA will migrate from these containers, particularly if used to heat liquids.

A new generation of compostable plastics, made from bio-based polymers like corn starch, is being developed to replace polycarbonates. These are also included in category #7, which can be confusing to the consumer. These compostable plastics have the initials “PLA” on the bottom near the recycling symbol. Some may also say “Compostable.”

#7 plastics are not for reuse, unless they have the PLA compostable coding. When possible it is best to avoid #7 plastics, especially for children’s food. Plastics with the recycling labels #1, #2 and #4 on the bottom are safer choices and do not contain BPA. PLA coded plastics should be thrown in the compost and not the recycle bin since PLA compostable plastics are not recyclable.

The plastics industry has conformed to regulations by applying the required codes to consumer products, but it is up to individuals to read and understand the codes. By understanding these simple classifications, we can best use plastics to our advantage while minimizing the health and disposal issues that may otherwise arise.

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  • I’m glad I read this post. All these types are plastics are used by us on a daily basis and it’s good to know what is good for us and what is not.

  • That’s a great help. I’ve often ended up throwing all sorts in the bin out of fear that my collection is going to be refused.

  • Great article but the pic of the baby bottles may confuse some people. Most of those baby bottles I am familiar with and they are not made with BPA. Some are PP and one is made of glass. :/

    • Mohd Sharib

      The United States FDA has removed the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging based on market abandonment, not safety.The European Union and Canada have banned BPA use in baby bottles.

      • Angela Vullo

        That may be true but you can’t just take BPA out of plastic and not replace it. It it a plasticizer that softens the material and makes it flexible. They have found a replacement, I have read it’s called BPS, but who really knows? The best way to avoid it is to avoid plastic that is recycle symbol #7 or no symbol at all. A simple “BPA FREE” in the plastic is not enough to make it considered “safe”. Symbol #5 (PP) is your best bet for plastic.

        • Deirdre

          Patently false, BPA is not a plasticizer. BPA is the monomer of polycarbonate (a polymer is made of of a bunch of monomers linked together). As such, BPA can ONLY be found in PC and epoxy resins, don’t believe anyone that tells you it can be found in other plastics (HDPE, LDPE, PP, etc) because that is just a flat out untruth that makes absolutely no sense if you have basic knowledge of polymer chemistry.

          Now, DEHP is a plasticizer that can be found in things like baby binkies and IV/blood bags, but no one freaks out about that, haha.

          • Fred Stork

            Deirdre, that’s called “media hype”. If some plastic has BPA in it, the media will proclaim “ALL plastic has BPA”.

        • Pandora’s Paradise

          Best thing to do actually is – AVOID PLASTIC – but we’re too busy being unintelligent,, exploring the wonderment of our intelligence to come up with an alternative!

          • Norma Angus

            Pandora. I’m 100 % with you on that statement…. I Avoid plastic like the plague !!

        • Fred Stork

          You are right, except BPA is not plasticizer. But you are right that BPS which was a political scam to silence unruly masses, has been found to be WORSE than BPA.

    • Privat Privat

      In my contry only glass bottles are considered safe.

  • Estelle Page

    Great article, I think more people need to be made aware of the different ways we can recycle plastic, and the government need to be more proactive about it because of the large volumes of waste each year.

    I have also looked into other ways that we can recycle plastic and found a great blog on great blog on how PVC-U plastic for window and door frames can be recycled 100% to be used over and over again.
    The recycled PVC-U also looks completely new. More people need to be made aware so they can opt for business that utilize this when buying or getting rid of door/window frames.

  • Our suggestion is to use glass or stainless steel bottles for drinking water.

    • Pandora’s Paradise

      Good answer!

  • KeurigUser

    Keurig needs to ditch the #7 plastic water reservoirs in their k-cup coffee makers!!!

    $200.00 for a coffee maker that makes coffee that tastes & smells like plastic..who knows what kind of toxins we consume with every cup…BUYER BEWARE.

    Keurig Platinum Plus
    Model: K79
    Sold by QVC
    Christmas 2013

    • PhySciTech

      Your taster is out of whack!

  • Hi nice information very good post……thanks

  • Sree

    Hi Friends,

    To confirm PP5 is good for kitchen and 7 is good for Kid water bottles. Am I correct?


  • Fred Copithorn

    the screw lids for soda and juice bottles is #5 I believe. This would make the recycling of #1 bottles difficult, as lids often get thrown in too. Am I correct?

  • I just noticed that the Lego movie cups that McDonalds gave away with the happy meals in 2013 are #7 plastic…. nice 🙁

  • Mark Forsyth

    The biggest problem we have here in the environmentally sensitive St Lawrence River area is the inability to recycle number 6 foam food trays from the grocery store.It all goes into the land fill or ends up as litter.Our closest landfill is located on a creek that is no more than a half mile from the river.The North Country Recyclables Org.sent out a brochure that indicates that 6 is recyclable but our local DPW refuses to pick it up.

  • rick watts

    was worried about reusing #2 buckets from big box stores. no more ,thanks for explaining

  • Bradley Cook

    My thoughts exactly about the PVC and children’s teething toys. What’s the purpose of grading plastics if they’re going to be used anyway in inappropriate ways?

  • Deirdre

    The article is misleading, all plastics are recyclable, just not all of them get recycled. Just because a recycling company refuses to take a certain type of plastic doesn’t mean it’s not recyclable, it usually has to do with their machinery not being set up to handle certain things.
    I think KeurigUser is unclear on the identity of the #7 label, it’s actually a catch-all label for quite a few different formulations of plastic. It does include polycarbonate, which is the source of the BPA scare, but it also includes things like blends of HDPE+LDPE and things like that, which won’t have any BPA

    • Jane Rothenberg

      What about laminated paper? I’ve not found any place that recycles this, nor any alternatives.

      • Fred Stork

        I donno where you live, but here in Canada it’s simply tossed in with “paper and cardstock”. Problem with any paper products is, each time they are recycled the fibers in paper get shredded shorter and shorter until they are unusable.

        • Diana Wiegand

          And what about all the ink?

  • peter szayer

    I bought a coffee maker De Longhi type DCF 2212T recently, made in CHINA.
    Today I had my first coffee and it was not drinkable.
    The coffee smelled plastic even when I used my favorite Gevalia coffee.
    On the bottom of the filter I find PP 1, it supposed to be safe, but is so toxic.
    I have to return this awful coffee maker do the store and I’m going back to my old
    Cuisinart coffee maker.

  • sj

    I have a glass water jug in the fridge with the #5 pp top. This top gets black on it in places over time and it’s hard to clean. I’m wondering if the ‘black’ is mold? I’ve tried baking soda and vinegar but it doesn’t come off and it’s in places which are hard to get to.

    I saw the same black stuff on someone’s white top on their charcoal water jug in their fridge.

    Is it mold?

    • It’s hard to answer this question without more information. If the black substance is fuzzy, then it’s mold. Washing water bottles between use with warm soap and water is recommended.

      • sj

        No, it’s not fuzzy. It’s a black line that will form in between 2 tight spaces on the plastic. I use baking soda and vinegar to soak it but it doesn’t budge. I end up using a pointed knife to scrape it off.

        This is a glass square water jug with a white top that snaps down with a spout. I hate that top due to the black stuff.

        I saw the same black stuff on my son’s Brita-type water jug also on the top plastic cover. It was in between the groves that seat the top to the jug so, the black stuff loves small spaces on this plastic. I told him to put it in the dishwasher often and make sure it comes out.
        My small cap it too small to anchor in the dishwasher, it bounces around so, I have to clean it by hand. I clean this all the time with soap and water, baking soda, vinegar…nothing budges it except scraping it with a sharp knife.

        • Well you’ve got me stumped. If you find the cause please let me know.

          • sj

            It’s the Anchor Hocking fridge water keeper. I’ve used them for years and always have the same issues with that plastic white cap on top. It’s not caused by tap water either because I use Whole Foods RO spring water with no fluoride.

            I’ve come to the conclusion, it happens in places that fit these bottle tightly where no air can circulate. That is also probably why my son’s Brita-type white plastic cap did the same thing where the cap fits tight on the jug.

            We just have to clean them all the time.


  • Jesse LaJeunesse

    It’s people!!! Number seven plastics is people!!!!

  • super guyver

    I just bought PC code 7.. AND IT MORE expensive… hurmm.. should i throw it or it to dangerous to be use..

  • hello friends,
    I would like to know that number 7 plastic is good for small kids?

  • I have been using PP#1 bottles to take water out camping or on my kayak for drinking. I have been storing water in them for years now as part of my hurricane supplies too. Accoridnig to the article, PP#2 would be safer, but one gallon jugs with that number on them leak and break down all the time. I understand that corn starch is added to them so that they will degrade if put in landfills or end up in the oceans, so I have gone with PP#1 bottles thinking they were safer. Everything is recyclable here where I live. Have things changed or am I putting myself and my family at risk?

    • You should be fine with your present system.

  • Rose

    I’m still very confused. The water store where I buy water sells blue, hard plastic water bottles for a LOT of money. They are marked 7. The smaller ones have PC by the 7. The 3 gallon ones are marked 7 with other by the 7. They are sold to bring back and refill over and over. Are they safer than the kind of soft plastic you buy jugs of water such as Ozarka Spring or Distilled water? I’m so confused.

    • Yes, the more expensive bottles are considered the most stable as plastics go.

  • Rose

    They sell the soft ones that are a 2 with HDPE. The say reuse them and they are really cheap.

    • Well, the HDPE bottles are also good, as regards water safety. They don’t hold up as well as the hard plastic bottles though.
      Milk is sold in HDPE jugs – they are tough, lightweight and 100% recyclable. But they can also be brittle since they are thin-walled. This is why they’re inexpensive.

  • Rose

    Makes me mad I paid so much for the hard plastic 7 when the cheap soft plastic 2 is safer. omg

    • You’ll get your value from the hard plastic, they are more durable and therefore usable in more situations.

  • I’ve been trying to find a way to figure out what can or can’t be recycled without relying on symbols that may or may not be included on packaging… for the very obvious reason that a lot of packaging doesn’t have any such symbols on it.

    A guy from Sainsburys told me that in general terms, “hard plastic” is easier to recycle than “soft plastic” … which is to say plastic that keeps its shape and remains solid is generally recyclable, while plastic films / wrappings and stuff are somewhat more specialist…

    BUT that is about all I have to go on, and all my attempts to find a better way of distinguishing have just led back to this numbers bullshit (which, as I said, relies on everything being marked with a symbol… which just doesn’t happen).

  • Ujala

    so is it safe to use no. 7 plastic bottles with label bpa free? And do we have to throw them away after using 7 times?

    • It is safe to use these bottles but we recommend using your own glass or stainless steel containers.

  • Privat Privat

    Now that i think about it, as a child i used those soft plastic water play balls, and i remember they tasting somwhat strange plastic taste 😡 im sure it was not healthy :X

  • Good suggestions. It would make such good sense to have a ‘compost friendly’ category.

  • Master of All I Survey

    After I concluded it took way too much work to remember which plastic is safe for reuse as a water bottle, for a few months we bought glass-bottled water in various sizes. I also bought four glass gallons of milk.

    We now have about 12 glass water bottles and use the glass milk bottles for juices and fridge bottled water. Our lives are so much easier now. We let everyone else debate about triangles and numbers within.

    • Good call. Glass is a great way to go.

    • Denise Painter

      Do you live in an area where you can carry your milk jugs back to a supplier for refilling? I don’t but I used to and I loved that. The dairy not only provided milk in glass or thick, hard plastic jugs that can be reused again and again, they also manufactured juices and iced tea and sold it in the same jugs. Bringing your jug back to these stores gets you a $.25 discount on the next product or products. One of my friends, when he was unemployed, would go to the landfill and look for those types of jugs to take them back and get a gallon of free milk for his kids. I would love to see all dairies and juice producers go to this kind of jug.

      • I remember when our milk was delivered to the back porch and the empty bottles were picked up at the same time. And we got to know the milkman. I miss the personal service and the fact that there was no packaging waste.
        The HDPE plastic used for modern milk jugs is a valued plastic for recycling, so we should make the effort to recycle them.
        Thanks for you comment.

  • Sarah Skilton

    I had absolutely no understanding of this,I am ashamed to say at 42yo and I am making a determined effort to reduce my plastic usage. Thank you for sharing this invaluable information to help my efforts.

  • Bigkid

    Some of the plastic not for food is used for children’s items like “sippy cups” and “teething rings”?? What’s with that????

  • Harry Benisatto

    Newer technology for recycling plastics now exists. LOOP Industries has a proprietary process that doesn’t need the addition of heat to the process, thus significantly reducing cost and environmental impact.

  • Guest

    Check with your trash company on which of these plastics they will recycle. Ours takes all 7 types, even #3 that the article states is “not” recyclable.

  • Diana Wiegand

    I’m wondering why all of the reusable water bottles which I have purchased, or which were promotional items, all have a #1on them. All the bottles of water for sale are also a #1, and supposedly not to be reused. This makes no sense.

  • Raghib Alam

    Can we again use of cold drink plastic bottle for drinking water

    • Yes, bottles for drinking water are reusable.

  • Bill Mcbride

    Lexan IS Polycarbonate. Lexan is a branding. polycarbonate is what the product is.

  • John Rayner

    You’d think by now, plastics that cannot be recycled would be phased out in favour of those that can considering the amount that ends up in refuse dumps and the sea.

  • Scott Thompson

    I tell you what. Someone has got to find a way to recycle plastics by simply cleaning it off, then shredding it to tiny pieces and selling it as loft insulation. That would be a way to use all that stuff that can only be used once and it’ll be cheaper to heat your house.

    • Good idea Scott. It would also be useful if we could melt down old HDPE plastics locally and pour our own new materials, such as plastic boards for raised beds.

  • 45 cal

    The real ? Have any humans ever been harmed by plastics? On the whole plastics have have prevented disease and toxic poisoning like no other man made material.
    All plastics can be recycled or converted to fuel. It’s just a matter of economy.

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