There is plastic all around us, and that little recycling logo on the bottom of a coffee cup or take out container does not mean you can always recycle plastic. Unfortunately, not everything with that logo belongs in your recycling bin.
There are seven different resin identification codes (or RICs) that indicate the type of plastic used to make an item (like your coffee cup). They typically appear as a number inside the familiar recycling symbol. These RICs can also be useful determine whether or not that item can be recycled.
If you want to up your recycling game, understanding the difference between the different plastics is crucial. If you’re ready to dive into the world of plastic recycling, this is the post for you.
Which plastics can be recycled?
Not all plastics are recyclable.
There are more than seven different plastics—indicated by a number code from 1 to 7 on each item, though 7 is a catch-all for plastics that aren’t type 1 to 6—and they are not all treated the same way. While it’s true that many plastics are easily recycled, others simply cannot be. Simply put, the RIC code can help you identify if and how a plastic can be recycled.
While figuring out whether or not the plastic you have in your hand can be tossed into your blue bin can be frustrating, learning how to recycle plastic properly is really important. Many of the plastics you interact with on a daily basis can be recycled, but they’re often overlooked.
In fact, a whopping 1 billion plastic recyclable water bottles are estimated to end up in landfills in Ontario, contributing to our negative impact on the environment. We can do better than that.
How to recycle plastic by its type
Type 1: PETE Plastics
Polyethylene Terephthalate or PETE plastic is an important part of everyday life; chances are, you interact with it on a daily basis. It’s used to make a variety of products from water bottles to packaging, and even hand soap bottles.
What’s great about PETE plastics is that they can be recycled multiple times, which means recycling a single bottle can mean more sustainable products can be made.
These plastics are also relatively easy to recycle due to the accessibility of resources, like your blue bins or bottle depots. Not to mention, in places like Alberta, you can even get money back for doing so.
Type 1 plastics are not only used for creating products like water bottles, but the base component of this plastic, polyethylene terephthalate, is a thermoplastic polymer that belongs to the polyester family. That means that some PETE plastics can be recycled and used in the creation of goods like blankets and pillow cases.
Type 2: HDPE Plastic
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) plastics are often used in the making of milk jugs, motor oil, shampoo and conditioner, soap, detergent, and bleach containers.
Type 2 plastic is accepted at many facilities worldwide because it’s considered one of the easiest plastics to recycle. However, if the HDPE is contaminated with another type of plastic, the final recycled product may not be recyclable. This means that in many cases, only pure Type 2 plastics with the “2” in the symbol and/or the letters HDPE underneath are recyclable.
HDPE plastics can take over 100 years to decompose, depending on the plastic density. Which means it’s incredibly important to make sure that you sustainably dispose of your Type 2 plastics at your local recycling depot.
Type 3: PVC Plastic
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) plastics are soft and flexible, making them an ideal material for items like children’s toys, plastic tubing, dinner trays, and even some furniture.
Unfortunately, PVC is generally not a recyclable plastic. In certain situations it can be melted and remolded into new items. But the problem for the everyday recycler is the lack of access to facilities that are able to recycle polyvinyl chloride. Working with PVC plastics during the recycling process can be hazardous because they contain toxic chemicals that, when heated, are released.
While the world is working towards creating more accessible and sustainable ways to dispose of Type 3 plastics, you’ll have to settle for checking to see if there are any facilities (like plastic lumber makers) that you can access nearby.
Type 4: LDPE Plastics
While Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) plastics can sometimes be recycled, the most sustainable way to deal with this type of plastic is by reusing it as much as possible.
Type 4 plastics are often used to make products such as plastic wraps, disposable grocery bags, and bread and produce bags.
Municipal curbside recycling programs, such as the city of Calgary’s Blue cart recycling program, often will accept Type 4 plastics, creating an easy way for you to dispose of them properly. It’s also possible that your local grocery store will have a drop-off recycling program accepting LDPE plastic bags for recycling.
Type 5: PP Plastic
Polypropylene (PP) plastics are most commonly used to make food containers for products like yogurt, butter, and sour cream.
Food grade plastics can be complex plastics to recycle due to potential contaminants. However, there are companies that specialize in receiving and recycling Type 5 plastics. Preserve, with their Gimme 5 program, allows for people to bring their Type 5 plastic recycling to Whole Foods Market locations around North America.
You can also check with your municipal curbside program to see if they accept this type of plastic. If they do, make sure you clean out the container well so no residue contaminate other recyclables in your bin.
Type 6: PS Plastic
The most common example of Polystyrene (PS) plastic is styrofoam. It is used to make a wide variety of household items like disposable plates, egg cartons, take-out containers, and packing peanuts.
Styrofoam is one of the most hazardous examples of plastics, plus it can take over 500 years to decompose. If not properly disposed of, it can potentially damage water and food sources. Styrene, a major component of styrofoam, can leach into the ground and groundwater, and with long sun exposure that same component can create harmful air pollutants that harm the ozone layer.
Despite the danger, many polystyrene plastics are burned or end up in landfills waiting to decompose and contaminate the ground around it.
Styrofoam and other polystyrene plastic should be recycled, but it’s not as easy as tossing them in your blue bin. While some curbside programs, like Toronto, accept Type 6 plastics in their blue bin, others, like Markham don’t allow styrofoam and ask residents to drop it off at local recycling depots.
Type 7: Undesignated Plastics
Type 7 essentially covers all remaining plastics. This can include anything from car parts to baby bottles.
Due to the variety of plastic types classified in Type 7, the category includes recyclable, non-recyclable, mixed, and biodegradable plastics. One such plastic includes polycarbonate plastics, which are the hardest plastics to classify as either recyclable or not.
Generally Type 7 plastics end up in landfills, although bioplastics have been utilized in recent years to create biodegradable solutions. Type 7 plastics labeled with “PLA” or the word “Compostable” can be composted. However, many recycling facilities are unable to handle biodegradable plastics, so cities like Toronto ask they be thrown into your regular trash.
How can you recycle plastic?
When you recycle plastic, your first step should be to figure out what type of plastic it is. Type 1 and 2 plastics, the most common types of plastics to be recycled, can often be taken to your local depot. You might even get a deposit back for doing so.
Unfortunately, recycling plastic isn’t as simple as throwing anything with the recycling symbol into your recycling bin. For the rest of the plastic types, you might have to do a little digging.
Use our WhichBin tool to know what goes where in your municipality. In the case that it’s not as easy as dropping it in the bin, try checking a database like Terracycle to check to see if there is a local non-government program that will take your used plastic.
Figuring out which plastics you can recycle might be frustrating, but it’s one small, impactful step towards living a more eco-friendly life. For more tips on how to live more sustainably delivered right to your phone, download the GarbageDay app.