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Recycling 101 | A Guide to Reading Plastic Recycling Labels

Oct 05, 2022 Annie Cao

Have you ever been in the process of disposing something only to be confused about the recycling label? Well, you’re definitely not alone! These days, many products are made from different kinds of plastics — but just because they have the chasing arrows symbol, that doesn’t mean they can be recycled.

To simplify the recycling process, here’s our breakdown on what each symbol means.

 

Symbol #1: PET or PETE

PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most commonly used plastic for single-use bottled items and is lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to recycle. You can find this plastic in water, soda, condiment, and mouthwash bottles, as well as salad dressing and cooking oil containers. When recycled, it can be used to make containers, carpet, and furniture (fun fact: our velvet seating options are made from 100% post-consumer recycled water bottles!).

How to recycle: most communities accept this plastic in curbside recycling. Just make sure the bottles are empty and rinsed. It’s also best to separate the caps since they tend to be made of a different plastic. 

 

Symbol #2: HDPE

HDPE (high-density polyethylene) is also a commonly used plastic because of its versatility and strength — it’s usually found in milk jugs, cleaning products, and shampoo bottles. You can usually recycle it without any issues, and it can be turned into pipes, fencing, and more.

How to recycle: check with your local recycling program.

 

Symbol #3: PVC or V

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) is an inexpensive yet tough plastic. This material is typically used in piping, siding, and in windows. However, it has a few downsides. PVC contains chlorine, and when burned, it can release harmful toxins into the air. Additionally, PVC and vinyl are rarely recycled, but some plastic lumber makers can turn them into speed bumps, road gutters, and cables.

How to recycle: look for a local recycling plant to see if they take PVC or vinyl. If you can’t find a recycling center, try donating or repurposing it.

Symbol #4: LDPE

LDPE (low-density polyethylene) can be used to make everyday items such as trash can liners, plastic wrap, toothpaste tubes, and plastic shopping bags. This kind of plastic can be recycled in some communities, but not all.

How to recycle: take shopping bags and other flimsy plastics to local stores to be recycled (find drop-off locations here!).

 

Symbol #5: PP

PP (polypropylene) is a plastic with a high melting point, so it can be used to hold hot liquids. Caps, straws, medicine bottles, and some toys are also made with this material. PP can be recycled into signal lights, bicycle racks, pallets, battery cables, and more.

How to recycle: some curbside programs accept PP. If there’s a cap, it should be separated (caps are usually thrown away since they easily slip through screens at recycling centers, but you can try to repurpose them!).

 

Symbol #6: PS

PS stands for polystyrene or styrene and is usually made into foam products. This material is particularly difficult to recycle because it’s mostly composed of air. You can find this form of plastic in take-out containers and egg cartons.

How to recycle: unfortunately, foam products are usually thrown away. To keep the pieces from scattering in the trash, place in a bag and squeeze the air out before tying it up. If possible, try to repurpose foam items to reduce landfill waste.

 

Symbol #7: Other

Symbol number 7 includes but is not limited to: acrylic plastic, polycarbonate plastic, polylactic fibers, nylon, and fiberglass. Acrylic and polycarbonate can be recycled, but the process is a bit more complex, so they're not accepted curbside.

How to recycle: check with your local recycling program.

 

Recycling as much plastic as possible is a step in the right direction, but we do have to address the larger issues at hand. According to a 2021 report from environmental groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup, only 5 to 6 percent of plastic in the US was recycled.

With all this waste, the best steps we can take are to reduce our overall plastic usage and hold larger corporations accountable for the amount of plastic packaging and waste they produce. It's also important to keep educating ourselves and others on how to properly recycle and push for clearer guidelines so that the plastic we do use has a better chance of being recycled.

Cover image via acmeplastics.com; article images via goodhousekeeping.com

Comments on this post (1)

  • Ann Williams

    Sep 09, 2022

    This was a very helpful description. Thank you!

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