How to Recycle Plastic Bottles & Jugs

Most bottles and jugs are #1 plastic (PET) or #2 plastic (HDPE), which are both accepted by most curbside recycling programs. The type of plastic is identified with a resin ID code on the bottle.  

Occasionally you will find bottles made from #3-#7 plastics, such as those made from plants instead of natural gas. These plastics may not be collected in your curbside program.

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Plastic Bottle & Jug Recycling Preparation

  1. Most recycling programs ask that you rinse your bottles and jugs before recycling. The remnants often contain sugar, which will attract insects and generate odors.
  2. You’ll want to check with your local program whether to keep caps on the bottles, or whether caps are accepted at all. Some programs want the cap on to prevent loose caps from falling out during transportation. Others want the cap off to ensure the bottle is empty and because their recycling machinery may be damaged when trying to crush a capped bottle.
  3. You should be OK leaving the label on the bottle, but it’s unlikely to be recycled since it’s a low-grade quality of paper or plastic.

Why Recycle Plastic Bottles & Jugs

  • Plastic bottles are among the most common sources of marine debris, where they can be mistaken as food by birds and fish.
  • Plastic bottles don’t biodegrade, meaning it will take hundreds of years for them to decompose in a landfill.
  • In America, we use 2.5 million plastic bottles each hour, and they are all designed for one use.
  • Using recycled plastic to make new products saves 66 percent of the energy over using virgin material.

Plastic Bottle & Jug Recycling Process

Recycling centers use optical scanners to identify the type of plastic resin, so #1 and #2 plastics are separated from each other and other materials (such as paper and glass). Bottles are then crushed (where caps are removed if you haven’t already done so) and baled to be sent to a plastic recycler.

Recyclers will shred the #1 or #2 plastic into flakes, which are washed, rinsed and dried. Flakes are then melted into pellets, then transported to a manufacturer to make new plastic bottles/jugs or other products, such as lining for sleeping bags, T-shirts, carpet, or playground equipment.

Frequent Plastic Jug & Bottle Recycling Questions

Can I recycle plastic bottles and jugs in my curbside recycling program?

Plastic bottles and jugs are part of the big five of curbside recycling, along with aluminum cans, glass bottles, paper and steel cans. Most curbside recycling programs accept at the very least #1 and #2 plastic bottles, and bigger programs accept all numbers and plastics in other forms (like yogurt containers). You’ll want to defer to your local program for full details and questions about rinsing and caps.

What is the difference between PET and HDPE?

Other than being separate resins, #1 and #2 plastic have different purposes. High-density polyethylene (HDPE, or #2 plastic) is translucent, which is why milk jugs appear cloudy. It’s also more durable. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or #1 plastic) has better temperature protection, which is why it’s used to store most beverages. Both are highly used and valuable plastic resins.

Why can’t I recycle bottles that contained certain materials?

The Food and Drug Administration has set restrictions on what it classifies as “food-grade plastic.” In other words, you can’t make new bottles and jugs from motor oil, antifreeze and pesticide containers because of concerns that the original product remains. These types of containers must be triple-rinsed in a commercial process to recycle them. In general, unless specifically mentioned as accepted, you want to omit any hazardous material plastic bottles from your recycling bin or you risk contaminating the entire load.

Why does my recycling program accept plastic bottles but not plastic food containers?

Plastic bottles are manufactured using a process called blow molding, which allows them more rigidity. Plastic containers (anything without a “neck”) are manufactured by injection molding, which creates a very stable product. While this means you’re more likely to reuse a plastic container to store leftovers than a bottle, one of the first steps in plastic recycling is to crush and bale the material.

If you try to crush a yogurt container or butter tub, it will crack and be difficult to bale. If you don’t crush these containers, you’ll be paying for “air weight” when they are transferred to the plastic recycler.

What is BPA and what does it have to do with plastic bottles?

Bisphenol A (BPA) is an organic compound used in the manufacturing of many types of plastic, such as water bottles, sports equipment and CDs. It has been shown to pose health concerns to children in large doses but is generally safe to humans.

In the mid-2000s, there was concern over the use of BPA in reusable plastic bottles because BPA health risks increase when the plastics are exposed to high heat, such as in the microwave or dishwasher. If you decide to pursue reusable plastic bottles to limit your plastic waste, you should research the product’s health effects and determine if it’s dishwasher-safe.

What’s the deal with plant-based plastic bottles?

A growing trend in plastic bottle manufacturing is to seek non-petroleum sources, the most popular of which is polylactic acid (PLA). Plastics manufactured using plants are biodegradable and compostable, and therefore cause less environmental impact if they wind up in a landfill or the ocean.

However, PLA bottles may look like #1 plastic bottles, but they can’t be recycled using the same process because they aren’t PET resin (PLA is #7 plastic, or the “other” catchall). If you are buying PLA bottles, you want to compost them or throw them in the garbage instead of recycling them, unless your recycling program accepts #7 plastics.

Are there any states that require plastic bottle and jug recycling?

Several states have passed laws requiring plastic bottles (not jugs) be recycled, including California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

There are also 10 states (and Guam) that have passed container deposit laws (or bottle bills), where consumers pay a fee (5 or 10 cents per bottle) that is refunded if the product is brought to a recycling center. Any unclaimed money is usually used to fund recycling programs, and as a result there are convenient recycling options throughout these states. Only plastic beverage bottles are covered under these laws, so detergent jugs, peanut butter containers and other plastic bottles are not included.

Why are plastic bottles and jugs often recycled into non-bottle products?

Most new plastic bottles are made from virgin material because it’s less expensive for the manufacturer. However, the great thing about recycling plastic is that there are so many new products you can make with recycled plastic that aren’t designed for one-time use. The U.S. soccer team even makes its jerseys from recycled plastic bottles.

Does plastic bottle color affect its recycling market?

Yes. Some #1 plastics are green, which means the PET has been dyed. Most #2 plastics are dyed (such as detergent bottles). These bottles must be separated from the clear and white PET and HDPE before recycling so the resulting pellets keep their color. As a result, some recycling programs will only accept clear bottles and jugs since they are more plentiful.

Can I reuse plastic bottles instead of recycling them?

Yes. While the bottles are designed for one-time use, you can refill a plastic water bottle an infinite number of times until it breaks. There are also endless ways to reuse your plastics around the house.

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