The Ultimate Plastic Breakdown

You may have seen the plastic recycling codes, but what do those numbers actually mean, and why should they be important to you?

The industry calls it the “resin identification coding system.” It indicates the type of plastic your product is made from and is ultimately your guide to recycling that plastic.

While the codes were initially developed to meet the needs of recyclers, they create a uniform system that is now used by curbside communities and other plastic recycling programs. Today, more than 80 percent of Americans have access to a plastics recycling program.

So, let’s break down the system into simple, non-industry terms. Once you have a handle on what materials make up your plastic, you can make a better decision from purchase to disposal.

Plastic #1 – PET, PETE

Polyethylene Terephthalate

Where You’ll Find It:

  • Bottles for water, soft drinks, juice, sports drinks, mouthwash, ketchup, beer and salad dressings
  • Food jars, such as peanut butter, jelly, jam and pickles
  • Microwavable food trays

Why They Use It: Plastic #1 is a clear plastic that is ideal for beverages because of its moisture-barrier properties. This material has smooth surfaces and is made for high impact. So drop it, roll it or throw it – the resin will hold its shape and protect the substance inside.

The Lowdown on Recycling: Plastic #1 is one of the most common and highly recycled resins. Most curbside programs will accept this plastic in bottle form. Plastic #1 is also the main resin targeted with container deposit laws, also called bottle bills. A container deposit law requires a minimum refundable deposit on  beverage containers in order to ensure a high rate of recycling or reuse. Currently, 10 states have bottle bills in place.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60-watt light bulb for up to six hours.
  • Recycled plastic bottles can be made into products such as clothing, carpeting, detergent bottles and lumber for outdoor decking.
  • According to the EPA, while overall recovery of plastics for recycling is relatively small – 2.1 million – recovery of some plastic containers has reached higher levels. PET bottles were recovered at a rate of 27 percent in 2008, according to a recent report.

Plastic #2 – HDPE

High Density Polyethylene

Where You’ll Find It:

  • Shopping bags
  • Milk jugs
  • Bottles for shampoo, dish and laundry detergent, household cleaners
  • Water and soda bottles
  • Cereal box liners
  • Shipping containers

Why They Use It: Plastic #2 is translucent and relatively stiff. These properties create a strong barrier, are suitable for high temperatures and the material is virtually crack-resistant. It is also well-suited for products that have a longer shelf-life. Its chemical resistance make it ideal for bleaches and detergents.

The Lowdown on Recycling: Plastic bags are generally made from plastic #2. The material can hold up to 2,000 times its own weight, making it the perfect product for transport. However, because of their light weight, plastic bags are often hard to recycle and left out of curbside programs. But most major grocery store chains have in-store recycling bins for plastic bags.

There is a high demand for this material, and in most areas, demand exceeds the available supply, because many consumers are not aware that collection programs are available in stores. The trick is actually remembering to take those excess bags with you the next time you go shopping.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • According to the EPA, only about 12 percent of bags and film were recycled in 2007.
  • Recycling or reusing 1 ton of plastic bags saves the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil.
  • Recycled plastic #2 content can be found in plastic lumber, buckets and crates, bottles for non-food items (shampoo, detergent, motor oil) and even curbside recycling bins themselves.

Plastic #3 – PVC, Vinyl

Polyvinyl chloride

Where You’ll Find It:

  • Blister packs
  • Clamshell containers
  • Bags for bedding, medical shrink wrap, deli and meat wrap
  • Pipes, siding, window frames, fencing, decking and railing

Why They Use It: PVC is very strong and high-impact. Along with its brilliant clarity, plastic #3 is also resistant to grease, oil and chemicals.

The Lowdown on Recycling: PVC is not commonly recycled or recyclable, nor is it biodegradable. More than 7 billion pounds of PVC are thrown away in the U.S. annually, and only 18 million pounds – barely one-quarter of 1 percent – is recycled. The relatively new mechanical recycling process known as Vinyloop® technology, developed by Solvay Research & Technology, allows the complete separation of PVC material from the non-PVC materials that are often combined with it.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • PVC requires 20 percent less energy to produce than other plastics. It is also thought to save on fossil fuel use, as its principal raw material (nearly 60 percent) is chlorine-derived from common salt.
  • To make vinyl products flexible, controversial plasticizers known as phthalates are used, accounting for nearly 90 percent of total phthalate consumption. This translates into more than 5 million tons used for vinyl every year.
  • Energy-intensive chlorine production for PVC consumes an estimated 47 billion kilowatt hours per year – almost equal to the annual total output of eight medium-sized nuclear power plants.

Plastic #4 – LDPE

Low Density Polythylene

Where You’ll Find It:

  • Bags for dry cleaning, newspapers, bread, frozen foods, produce and household garbage
  • Shrink wrap and stretch film
  • Coating for paper milk cartons and beverage cups
  • Container lids
  • Squeezable bottles

Why They Use It: LDPE is predominantly used in film and packaging. Its toughness, flexibility and transparency made it ideal for use in products where heat sealing is necessary. It is resistant to acids, bases and vegetable oils as well.

The Lowdown on Recycling: Because plastic #4 is often in film form, it is sometimes not accepted in curbside recycling programs. However, its material is similar to plastic bags, and some major grocery store chains will accept this plastic packaging for recycling. Reducing your plastic packaging waste starts in-store. Go for products with less plastic packaging and film.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • The average growth rate of container and packaging waste through 2010 is estimated to be about 1.8 percent annually.
  • About 3 percent of all U.S. energy consumption comes from the production of packaging materials. Using recycled material for the production of packaging goods takes less energy than creating the product from the material’s natural state.
  • Packaging and containers makes up about 56 percent of all plastic waste. About 75 percent of all of the waste comes from residential households.

Plastic #5 – PP


Where You’ll Find It:

  • Yogurt, margarine tubs
  • Medicine bottles
  • Bottle caps
  • Ketchup and syrup bottles
  • Reusable plastic containers, such as Tupperware

Why They Use It: Polypropylene has a good chemical resistance, a high melting point and is a  strong material. Therefore, it’s ideal for reusable food containers and other packaging that requires durability. But while this resin is as common as a ketchup bottle, it’s still often left out of curbside programs.

The Lowdown on Recycling: According to the American Chemistry Council (ACC), plastic #5 is a similar resin to plastic #2, which makes it more appealing to reclaimers who can use the material for water filtration systems, shipping pallets, sheeting and automotive battery casings and garbage and recycling bins. Polypropylene can be recycled back into its original form, or it can be made into products such as buckets, paint pails, automotive bumpers, automotive battery cases, furniture and flower pots. It is also used in many woven reusable bags.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • Sixty-two percent of California communities now have curbside access to non-bottle food container recycling. Out of the 100 largest communities nationwide, about one-third have curbside recycling programs for plastic #5.
  • Even though they typically aren’t printed with a #5 symbol, most plastic bottle caps (like those on water and soda bottles) are made from polypropylene.
  • According to the ACC, at least 325 million pounds of non-bottle plastics were collected for recycling in the U.S.

Plastic #6 – PS


Where You’ll Find It:

  • Food service items (cutlery, plates, cups, bowls)
  • Takeout containers
  • Foam packaging
  • Packing peanuts
  • Compact disc cases
  • Aspirin bottles

Why They Use It: Polystyrene is a versatile plastic that can be in both foam and rigid forms. As a foam, it is lightweight and comprised of 97 percent air. General purpose polystyrene is clear, hard and brittle. It has a low melting point but has an excellent moisture barrier, making it ideal for short-shelf products. Its low thermal conductivity also makes it perfect for insulation purposes.

The Lowdown on Recycling: According to a report by the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR), more than 65 million pounds of expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging were recycled in 2007, while the number grew to 69 million pounds in 2008.

While most curbside programs do not accept plastic #6 or EPS, there are several community programs that will recycle the material. If there are no programs that fit your specific needs or are near your location, AFPR offers a mail-in program for consumers. Average shipping fees range from $1.50 to $9, based on the total packaging weight and volume.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • According to Virginia Lyle, deputy director of AFPR, all foam peanuts have recycled content, and most shape-molded polystyrene has at least 25 percent recycled content.
  • In the early 1900s, The Dow Chemical Company invented a process for extruding polystyrene to achieve a closed cell foam that resists moisture. Commercially known as Styrofoam, the material is the most widely recognized brand in insulation today.
  • Several cities and programs are against using polystyrene foam. In fact, San Fransisco initiated a ban against all food service EPS containers.

Plastic #7 – Other

Where You’ll Find It:

  • Bio-based plastics made from corn, potato or sugar derivatives
  • Three- and five-gallon reusable water bottles
  • Some citrus juice and ketchup bottles
  • Oven-baking bags, barrier layers and custom packaging
  • Any plastic product that does not fit into resin categories 1-6

Why They Use It: Plastic #7 the catch-all category for those plastic products that do not fit into 1-6. These plastics are multi-layered combinations of  more than one plastic resin. Its usage and properties depend on the types of resins used to produce it.

The Lowdown on Recycling: Programs for the “other” category vary greatly by location. Since it is such a broad category, many curbside programs will not accept plastic #7 at all. Bio-based plastics are often lumped into this category as well. These plastics are often touted as more eco-friendly because they will degrade faster than other resins.

However, consumers should keep in mind that these plastics are only biodegradable in a commercial composting system. Generally, the plastic will not degrade in backyard compost piles because the temperature isn’t high enough.

Need-to-Know Info:

  • The presence of BPA (bisphenol A) is a controversial issue for plastic #7. BPA is typically used as an additive in plastics manufacturing, as it makes the plastic more shatter-proof.
  • Plastic #7 includes two main types: acrylonitrile styrene or styrene acrylonitrile (referred to as AS/SAN), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). Both are prolific and are used to make high quality, strong plastics.
  • In the few instances when it can be recycled, plastic #7 quickly downcycles to non-renewable plastic. However, some plastic #7 products are considered to be e-waste and can be properly disposed of in an electronics recycling program.
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  1. I work for a company that sells baling wire to most of the large recycling programs around the country. Upon a recent tour of three very large recycling facilities on the eastern coast I noticed that a fairly large amount of plastic drink bottles where ending up in the “to landfill pile” after the third tour I asked the plant manager about these bottles and I was informed that if the lids are left on the bottles they go to the landfill. He told me that they don’t have time to unscrew the caps for separation, and that also that if the try to bale these with the caps on that they don’t hold shape and take up to much room. This is something that I never thought about before and feel that it is a concern we all should raise awareness about.

  2. The information here about biodegradable plastics is a bit incomplete. SOME Biodegradable plastic (the corn starch variety – Polylactic Acid or PLA) will only break down in a composting facility. PLA does require high heat aerobic conditions to break down, and as litter or landfill it just sits there.

    There are other types of biodegradable plastics, and degradable plastics. The public is generally confused by the differences, and assumes that all of them act the same. Oxo-degradable plastics are popular, but they don’t actually BIO degrade, they just break down into smaller pieces when exposed to oxygen, light and air. This solves only the visual problem of litter. In landfills, these also just sit there. They can, however, be recycled prior to degradation.

    Another option is completely biodegradable plastics made using traditional resins with an additive that enables the plastic to biodegrade within a few years when in the presence of other decomposing material. It can also be recycled along with other plastics in the same resin category.

  3. Plastics are a blessing and a curse. Just look at the pacific great garbage patch. It is not always easy to recycle, plus its uses are very limited due to coloring. JBI is starting a any plastic recycling into gasoline. They estimate that by 2020 they should be able to recycle 15 million tons of landfill plastic into 100 million barrels of gasoline or diesel. The first processor is currently being assembled for final testing and should go live in a month or 2. They deserve the interest of the green community as they are not associated with any group or political movement to have free press and propaganda. They are also planning to use the same technology to clean up the pacific, just waiting for the necessary plastic recovery to be finalized at a major university. You should call them.

  4. Can someone kindly tell me what San Francisco is doing for being so efficient in recycling and why is every other county/state taking so long to catch up?

    Maybe if someone wrote an article about San Francisco’s techniques on how to recycle we would be better at it and maybe the companies that produce these plastics will change the way they create plastics.

    If San Fran stopped EPS type plastics do they use some of the other ones? We dont seem to hear much about san francisco, their methods or anything except that theyre way ahead of everyone else in the USA. And what methods are other countries using that puts them way ahead of everyone else and what petitions or something can we do to change things at a faster rate?


  5. In your first section about number 1 plastics you mention that NC is one of 11 states to have a bottle bill. That is not correct. We have a landfill disposal ban on all plastic bottles, but there is not a deposit associated with it. More information can be found here –

    In response to the first comment about the lids found on plastic bottles once they arrive at a MRF, we recommend that citizens squish their bottle and screw the cap back on. Thus decreasing the amount of volume and negating any projectiles that might occur when processed or baled. Some MRFs do have markets for the lids. I always tell people, we don’t ask you to remove the ring, which is the same type of plastic. Once a processor has enough of something, it will become valuable for them to recycle versus throwing it away.

  6. I am a teacher in an Arts Academy in Clovis NM. My class is working on going green and trying to help our school. We have built our vermicomposting area and are feeding our worms left over cafeteria food. But our question is, how can we recycle all of the styrofoam trays that our cafeteria food is served on each day. We have 521 students that eat everyday and watch the custodians throw all of that into the dumpster. It is very sad. We have found a recycling area for other plastics and are saving our bottle tops for a mosaic mural. The big deal for us now is the cafeteria trays. Can you help us?

  7. Author

    Hi Chartley,

    Sounds like your school is doing some pretty cool stuff! Recycling polystyrene is a hot topic around here, and there are a lot of programs that have been put in place to remedy the lack of curbside programs. Check out our article on recycling plastic #6 ( I think this will help you get started. I suggest contacting some of the companies we profile in the article. Also, in July, we ran a story about a California elementary school that piloted its own recycling program for foam trays ( Hope this helps. Good luck and keep up the efforts!

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  11. To my happiness, I found a bin at my local Whole Foods to recyle # 5 plastics. I originally found a article on recyling pill bottles at the store about 4 months ago online when researching recycling the bottles.I tried asking local pet clinics if they could use them but no dice. When I typed in pill bottle here in the search,nothing came up either. So anyways,I called Whole Foods to double check and they said I can bring in any of my #5 plastics in. There going to be getting alot from my house,lol.I can’t stand throwing it away but my local recycling will not take it.

    Here is info about there program and some others:

    If you can take this extra step,go for it!!!
    Erin from Long Island,NY

  12. In searching recycle centers in numerous cities around the south and east, I find that most recyclers only recycle #1 and #2 plastics. Even some (maybe even most) large cities only recycle #1 & #2, including Philadelphia, Richmond, Cincinncat, NEW YORK, Huntsville,

    I notice that some many food product packagers use #5 plastic where some use #2 for the same products. #2 is recyclable everywhere, and #5 almost nowhere. I makes no sense to me to use non-recyclable materials when recyclable materials CAN used, for example, for yogurt, cottage cheese, whipped cream.

    You may argue that #5 IS recyclable. But it is not nearly as acceptable for recycling as #2, and #2 can be used almost anywhere that $5 can. Sure it has a higher temperature resistance, but who needs that for yogurt, cottage cheese, and whipped cream, which are stored in fridges?

    Can (will) the plastics industry do something here to encourage the use of more #2 and less #5?

  13. I was reading through these comments and the first spoke of the plastic bottles with lids left on. Why not seperate the bottles with lids into seperate bins and send to US prisons, make this a job for convicts. they could unscrew the lids for plastic bottles and put each into seperate bins then the goverment, who sees fit to give them jobs to make money anyways could add this to the job list. Then send the plastic and lid filled boxes could be sent to be properly recycled.
    Our landfills are very sad and all of us should do our part. I also think that if the Goverment would give a little more incentive to recycle, people would be more inclined to do so. A small tax credit (that is if we could find a way to weigh and give vouchers for records. Say for instance walmart could add an employee to do just that, or we could take them into participating store (which should include all stores) and have a station set up only to weigh bags. I have many more thoughts but I’ll stop here for now. I just want my children to have the same chance to live in a clean would as some of the rest rest of us. Oh I also think it should be mandatory for fast food restaurants to use bio-degradable containers such as the corm made container. There is hope if we all try a little harder.

  14. Thanks for this article. As a Girl Scout leader of two troops, we are working on our Journey books. They are talking about water and energy. Is there a way to get the article without all the other stuff for my girls to see.

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