Sorting Through Recycling Plastic
You can recycle just about any type of plastic, which is good news for the environment.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Christine Wilmsen Craig, MD
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Plastic is a man-made material created from natural, but non-renewable, resources. Oil and natural gas are just two of the non-renewable natural resources needed to make plastic — and plastic manufacturing is eating up our supply. Therefore, the more recycling of plastic that we can do, the better.
How Plastic Recycling Works
Ever wonder what happens to your plastic goods after your waste management company whisks them away? Recycling plastic involves an interesting journey from the recycling bin to the plastic manufacturing plant, typically including the following steps:
- Plastic items are taken to a recycling center and sorted by type and maybe by color.
- The plastics are cleaned and compacted together into a big bale, then sent to a processing factory.
- The bale of plastic is cut up into shreds or tiny plastic particles, then shipped to plastic manufacturing companies for reuse.
- The plastics are then turned into a variety of new plastic products, which can hopefully start a new round of recycling plastic.
Recycling Plastic of Different Types
There are many different types of plastic, with different strengths and consistencies. Plastic products are coded 1 through 7 to indicate the type of resin they were made with and how they can be grouped for recycling. The seven types include:
- 1 - Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE):Used for food and drink packaging like peanut butter jars, large soda bottles, and cooking oil containers. One of the most common types of recycled plastic, it can be reused to make paint, egg cartons, surfboards, sailboat parts, bottle and containers that are not used for food or drink, and even some clothing and carpeting.
- 2 - High-density polyethylene (HDPE):Used for laundry detergent containers and milk jugs as well as plastic grocery and shopping bags, this is the plastic most frequently used for home items. It can be recycled and made into garbage and grocery bags, soda bottles, orange traffic cones, laundry detergent bottles, and some toys.
- 3 - Polyvinyl chloride (PVC):Used for home siding, water hoses, some types of flooring, plumbing materials, and shower curtains, PVC can be recycled and used again in siding, fences, plastic railings, and drainage pipes.
- 4 - Low-density polyethylene (LDPE):Used for frozen food plastic bags, squeezable bottles, dry cleaning bags, cellophane, and disposable baby diapers, LDPE can be recycled into items as diverse as shipping envelopes and compost bins.
- 5 -Polypropylene (PP):Used for car batteries, plastic tubing, plastic drinking straws, bottle caps on sodas, condiments, and other packaged items, PP can be reused in brooms, furniture, bird feeders, batteries, and automotive parts.
- 6 - Polystyrene or polystyrene foam (PS):Used for disposable items like packing peanuts, restaurant food cartons, egg cartons, coffee cups, and plastic utensils, PS can be recycled to make similar new products or used in plastic food trays found in restaurants and cafeterias, home insulation, some pens, and plastic lumber.
- 7 - Other plastics:Miscellaneous plastics are often used to make reusable food storage containers and may be recycled into plastic bottles or even plastic lumber.
Recycling Plastic at Home
To recycle plastics used around the home, you’ll mainly want to collect two types: plastic film bags and hard plastic items.
Recyclable plastic film bags are coded 2 or 4 and include:
- Plastic film bags from grocery, department, and other retail stores — most bags can be recycled, but they must be clean, dry, and empty.
- Plastic packaging on bread, diapers, bulk water bottles, and snack items, and wraps from paper towels, napkins, toilet paper, and disposable plates, but not plastic cling wrap or the type of packaged food bags that hold items like cut lettuce and frozen foods
- Bags from the dry cleaner’s
- Plastic bags used to bag fruits and vegetables in the grocery produce department
- Food storage bags
- Bubble wrap
- Plastic wrap that’s been used to protect new electronic products and furniture
Recyclable hard plastics that are picked up by most waste management companies are coded 1 and 2. They include:
- Hard plastic containers like milk jugs and large soda bottles
- Plastic water and soda bottles
- Plastic food containers and tubs used for margarine, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream, and the like
- Some bottles from household cleaning products if cleaned; read the label to find the plastic number and to see if it's recyclable.
Exactly which plastics can be recycled through your curbside recycling company depend on where you live, and every location is different. Waste management operators in some cities and towns will pick up almost all types of plastics, while others are more limited, often because their facilities aren't designed to recycle those materials.
Because plastic bags are recycled separately, many grocery, department, and other retail stores now offer plastic bag recycling bins in their stores; to find a list of stores and other plastic bag recycling centers near you, go to .
For the plastics that aren't picked up by your recycling service — commonly, plastics coded 3, 5, 6, and 7 — you can try to see if a recycling drop-off center in your area will accept and recycle them. If you have storage space, you might consider collecting items and taking them to the drop-off recycling center a few times a year — try picking up recyclables from friends and neighbors, too.
Video: Sorting and Recycling Facility - Follow the Process
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