What Plastics Can Be Recycled?

Is All Plastic Recyclable?

This is a question on many people’s lips. Others just think that because it has a plastic recycle symbol it’s recyclable. Right?  Wrong. There are many types of plastics produced so, as not all plastics are created the same, not all plastics have the same chance of being recycled. Read on to get good tips to know what plastics can be recycled so you can reduce your carbon footprint.

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Why is Plastic Recycling Important?

As of 2015, over 380 million tons of plastic waste was produced globally, up 20,000% since 1950! Plastic production has increased since, of which only 9% is reported to be recycled.  In essence, we are producing more than a ton of plastic waste per person on Earth annually. Even worse, it takes 4 to 8% of global oil consumption to produce these plastics.

Remember, there is no “away” in our concept of “throw away”.  Our solid waste goes somewhere.  It not only goes to landfills, but it also goes to non-landfill land areas, water ways, streams and, of course, the ocean.  It literally and chokes, suffocates, and kills marine life, impacting their ability to live safely, not to mention impacting industries and economy that rely on that biodiversity (if the economy is your focus) or the fact that humans consume the fish that consume plastic. Ick!

Beachfront on ocean

Additionally, the U.S. is running out of space and ways to dispose of plastic waste.  We used to ship it to China, but even now China is no longer accepting the U.S.’s plastic waste.  The latest victim is now Argentina, but how much longer until they wise up and no longer take the U.S.’s plastic waste? 

The ultimate goal is to reach zero waste and redesign manufacturing systems for a 100% circular economy.  Until we get there, we are left to doing our best with the waste already produced when we buy it. Here is where recycling comes in.

Plastic Recycling Symbols 1 - 7

There are 7 types of plastics produced, each represented by that familiar number inside the recycle symbol.  Look familiar?

Resin Identification Code helps show What Plastics Can Be Recycled
Resin Identification Code

These symbols on plastics, developed by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. in 1988, are called the resin identification code.  The purpose of this voluntary code system is, you guessed it, to identify what type of plastic it is as well as help consumers know if it can be recycled in which jurisdiction.

Why is Plastic Not Recyclable?

Since different plastics have different polymers, this gives them different uses. Of course, this distinguishes what plastics can be recycled or not. The rule of thumb is plastics with a “1” or “2” are generally recyclable; “3” and “5” plastics are sometimes recyclable; and all others are not recyclable, explained in the following image:

Plastics-by-polymer-type-chart shows What Plastics Can Be Recycled
Source: Our World in Data, Plastics by Polymer Type

A Note on Single-Use Plastics

Single-use plastics mean just that:  those products made from plastic you use once and throw “away”. The NRDC has a great article describing these products, why they are bad, and what you can do to avoid using them.

Simply put, just stop using single-use plastics at all possible times.  Bring your own water bottle or coffee mug where ever you go.  Carry them in your reusable bags you keep with you and in your car.  Stop using plastic utensils and straws, and ask your favorite restaurants to stop buying them. There are so many easy ways you can avoid using single-use plastics with simple, inexpensive lifestyle changes.  Let the NRDC help you out.

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What Plastics Can Be Recycled

The easy answer to what plastics can be recycled is to check with your local city or county government!  Your local recycling collection service will, or should, have a website that details what plastics they can and cannot recycle, no matter what the recycling code. 

“What if I’m traveling or can’t find a website showing local recycling availability?”, you may ask.  First, thank you for asking that question.  It means you’re thinking ahead.  Good on you! Second, check out Earth911! Simply put in the zip code or type of material you wish to dispose of correctly and they pull up many options.  How easy is that?

What Besides Plastic Can Be Recycled or Collected?

In addition, your municipality should have a list of non-regular items they can collect, recycle and/or dispose of properly so as not to negatively impact our environment, which, of course, negatively impacts our health. Examples, but surely not an inclusive list, of items that should not be disposed regularly through your local waste collection service are:

  • Drain cleaners
  • Pool chemicals
  • Batteries of any kind
  • Anything containing mercury
  • Paints, paint thinners, sealants, paint strippers, etc.
  • Household cleaners not biodegradable
  • Pesticides, insecticides or repellants
  • Motor oil, gasoline, antifreeze
  • Electronics
  • Flammable products

What More Can You Do?

So why make plastics that can’t be recycled? This is a very good question!  Do we really need those types of plastics?

This is where you, the consumer, come in to get your local and state representatives to put ballot measures to provide more recycling options and force manufacturers to have to take back the waste they created in the first place. Can you imagine if manufacturers had that responsibility?  How much plastic waste do you think they’d create?  Not much!  Act and make your voice heard towards zero waste and a circular economy. 

Also, grab your FREE Zero Waste Tips Checklist below!
What are you waiting for?

Zero Waste Checklist download image

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Gwen is the Founder of CORR Concepts and a Sustainability professional with an MBA in Sustainable Enterprises and LEED AP ID+C accreditation from the GBCI. She is also the Founder of the www.CORRTravel.com solo travel blog. As a Sustainability professional and Earth Steward, environmental sustainability and biodiversity protection is her "religion" while travel is her passion.

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2 thoughts on “What Plastics Can Be Recycled?”

  1. Recycling symbols or logo or sign usually look like chasing arrows (by clockwise) triangle. These are known as recycling triangles. Within this triangle, there are any of the numbers from 1 to 7 with different meanings.

    1. Yep, you got it, Danny! The recommended next step is to contact your local/municipal recycler to confirm which numbers they do recycle (should be at least 1’s and 2’s) and limit your purchases of plastic products to those recyclable numbers. Please keep coming back to CORR Concepts for more recycling/waste reduction tips! – Gwen

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