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Deciphering the Plastic Recycling Codes


To say that recycling has gained a lot of attention in the last 20 years or so would likely be considered the understatement of the year. Even with all of the information available out there, there are still some serious miscommunications and myths circulated about everything from where to recycle to what types of products can be recycled. One of the most confusing elements to recycling has to be the plastic recycling codes. These codes were designed to actually make it easier for consumers and recycling plants to distinguish between the different types of plastics used. Not all plastics are created equal when it comes to how and even if they can be reused. If the whole plastic recycling codes thing has you in a quandary, here is a quick, basic look at the whole system.

To be clear one of the plastic recycling codes indicates plastic products that can’t be recycled at all. These products simply contain too many different types of plastics to be broken down in the recycling centers. As a rule of thumb, if a product has a number 7 on the bottom or somewhere on the thing, either be prepared to keep it for life, be willing to throw it in the garbage, or don’t buy it at all. You may also see this number represented by “other” on the packaging or product itself.

Numbers 3, 4, 5, and 6 may or may not be able to be recycled. The fastest and most effective way to determine this is to contact your local recycling plant and ask. The people there have, obviously, been trained in all things recycling and can point you in the right direction. The most common products made from the above mentioned numbered plastics are clear food packaging, plumbing pipe, and bags for frozen foods and breads. You can also expect to find these plastics in disposable tableware, Styrofoam products, and egg cartons. Among the recycling community, it is typically considered best to avoid purchasing these materials whenever possible.

Of course, there are plastics out there that are both easy and beneficial to recycle. Those items with the plastic recycling codes of 1 and 2 are outstanding choices for recycling. You see and use these products likely every day. Numbers one and two are found in items like water and soft drink bottles. Milk and large water bottles are usually made from number 2 or HDPE plastics, which are highly recyclable. Once these products have been recycled by their plastic recycling codes, the newly renewed plastics can be found in all kinds of products like decking, new plastic toys, and even insulation. Recycling has also been shown to use less energy than making virgin plastics and is a benefit on both levels.

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