Recycling Codes 101

We all know we should do our part to recycle plastics, and potentially even avoid some - but knowing what the different numbers mean can get confusing. Here is SupermarketGuru’s guide.

August 18, 2014

We al know that recycling is important because it turns materials that would otherwise become waste into valuable resources. There are many benefits to recycling, and according to the Environmental Protection Agency, these include protecting and expanding US manufacturing jobs, reducing the need for landfills and incineration, preventing pollution caused by the manufacturing of products from virgin materials, conserving natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals and helping to sustain the environment for future generations.

From a health standpoint, certain plastics have been associated with chemicals leeching into the foods they hold and thus into our bodies – for example, BPA is thought to have endocrine (hormone) disrupting effects.  (More on that here.)

So what do the numbers on the bottom of most plastic jars, containers and other packaging actually mean? What are the different plastics actually made of? Well, the numbering system was implemented by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in 1988 to allow recyclers to be able to tell the different types or grades of plastics when sorting.

1. PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate): One of the easiest plastics to recycle; most curbside recycling programs will accept it. Often used for soda bottles, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers, salad dressing, vegetable oil containers, water bottles and many common food packages. It poses low risk of leaching into the material it is holding.

When recycled it is used for bottles and polyester fibers like polar fleece, tote bags, furniture and carpet.

2. HDPE (high density polyethylene): Also readily recyclable and picked up by most curbside programs. Mostly used for packaging detergents, bleach, milk containers, shampoo bottles, household cleaners, and motor oil. It is a versatile plastic with many uses and carries low risk of leaching.

When recycled it is used for more bottles, bags, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, picnic tables, fencing, etc.

3. PVC or V (polyvinyl chloride): Rarely recycled and is used in many applications including: pipes, toys, furniture, windows, packaging, etc. It contains chlorine, so must be carefully manufactured as not to be a health threat. Avoid cooking with #3 but if necessary, don't let the plastic touch food. Also never burn PVC, because it releases toxins.

It is recycled into decks, paneling, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, etc.

4. LDPE (low-density polyethylene): Not often recycled through curbside programs; some communities will accept it. Some stores accept plastic shopping bags for recycling. LDPE is used for many different kinds of wrapping, grocery bags and sandwich bags, bread, squeezable bottles, frozen food, etc.

It is most often recycled into trashcan liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, floor tile and more.

5. PP (polypropylene): Some curbside programs accept #5. PP has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that are used for hot liquids as well as: syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, some yogurt containers, caps, medicine bottles and more.

Often recycled into fibers, traffic lights, battery cables, trays, brooms/rakes, brushes, ice scrapers, bicycle racks and more.

6. PS (polystyrene): Can be recycled through some curbside programs. Used for disposable cups and plates, foam food trays/ meat trays, egg cartons, packing peanuts and more.

Can be recycled into similar products: insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers as well as made into rigid, or foam products (aka Styrofoam). PS was an environmental “no no” for dispersing widely across the landscape, and because it is difficult to recycle. Many places still don't accept it, though it is gradually gaining traction.

Do take care if reheating or cooking in polystyrene containers as it has been suggested that they can leach potential toxins into foods.

7. Other: Could be a mixture of all of the products mentioned above. Is also found in three- and five-gallon water bottles, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, and more. #7 is hard to recycle although more programs are accepting it.

Polycarbonate is grouped into this category, and is the plastic that parents are worried about because several studies have shown it can leach potential hormone disruptors. Lumped in to the #7 designation as well are those possibly made from plants (polyactide), which may actually be compostable.

Check the bottom of the bottles for the recycling symbol. Numbers 3, 6, and 7 may contain BPA (contact the manufacturer to be sure) or other supposed hormone disruptors, so it would be in your best interest to avoid water or any beverage (or foods) bottled in this type of plastic - they can also take up to 100 years to disintegrate!

It is as important to recycle as it is to purchase recycled products. Purchasing recycled completes the recycling loop. As we as consumers continue to demand more environmentally sound products, manufacturers will continue to meet these desires by producing high-quality recycled products.

For more on recycling visit the EPA. 

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