When our fearless leader handed me this assignment, I thought, “What’s confusing about plastic recycling? I just toss all of my plastics into my recycling container and forget about it.” And then I did some research…

Holy excessive codes, Batman! There’s PET (or PETE because one ambiguous code isn’t hassle enough), HDPE, PVC, PP and several more symbols to decipher. I feel like I need a super secret agent decoder ring to figure out what each one means. And, of course, although some of these can be recycled at home, some of them need to be taken to a recycling center. Let me see if I can help you navigate some of this madness.


Plastics that bear a little triangle symbol with a 1 inside and the letters PET—or PETE—beneath the image are made from polyethylene terephthalate. You’ll see this symbol on soda and water bottles, beer bottles (who drinks beer out of plastic?!), mouthwash bottles, and peanut butter jars. PET is easily recycled via curbside recycling pickup services.


When the little triangle has a 2 inside and the code of either HDPE or PE-HD under it, you know that the plastic it adorns is made from high-density polyethylene. Like PET plastics, HDPE plastics are picked up by most curbside recycling companies. So keep tossing your milk jugs, household cleaner bottles, and harder plastic containers used for things like yogurt or butter into the recycling bin.

Limited Recyclable Plastics

Here’s where it gets difficult. Plastics marked with PVC (and a number 3), LDPE or PE-LE (number 4), and PP (number 5) have limited recyclability. Toys and some food containers are made from PVC, while some thin plastic bags are made from LDPE (or PE-LE) plastics. PP stands for polypropylene, a tough plastic used for making straws, soda cups and some food containers. Your best bet is to check with your curbside pickup company to make sure they will accept such items.

Expanded Polystyrene and BPA

Expanded polystyrene (commonly known by Dow product brand name Styrofoam) is labeled with a number 6 triangle and the letters PS underneath. There’s very limited recycling available for expanded polystyrene, which is why most companies have done away with it. However, you can still find it in electronics packaging and in every to go restaurant in creation. Check with your community to see where to find a facility for PS recycling.

When I was doing my research, I found that my town accepts all plastics, numbered 1 through 7, except for 6 (polystyrene). This is particularly interesting since number 7 plastics, labeled “OTHER,” are often non-recyclable. I wonder if they’re just throwing it away? These plastics include BPA — which you shouldn’t be using anyway — polycarbonate and bio-based plastics which are used for food containers and water bottles.

So the lesson to this story is: Do some research. When it comes to recycling, we can’t assume anything.

By Megan Winkler

Eco-nerd, solar power enthusiast, DIY diva and professional coffee drinker, Megan has written everything from courses in healthcare and psychology to interior design and cooking advice. She has a master’s degree in military history, owns two chainsaws, is a collector of strange trivia and a world renowned Pinterest pro. She is constantly looking for better ways to do things.