How to Identify Recyclable Plastic (and How to Recycle It)

By this point, most of us know that outside of limiting our overall use of plastics, recycling as much plastic as we can is a big step in the right direction when it comes to keeping plastics out of our oceans and waterways.

 

But the big hurdle that many people face is how to identify what kind of plastics can be recycled, and even once they do, how to properly recycle it.

 

Here is your ultimate guide to how to identify recyclable plastic and properly recycle it:

 

Locate the Resin Identification Code

 

The resin identification code or RIC is the numerical value assigned to different plastic objects to identify what kind of plastic the item is made of. There are 7 different types of plastic identified with RIC’s. These are:

 

1: PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)

2: HDPE (high-density polyethylene)

3: V (polyvinyl chloride)

4: LDPE (low-density polyethylene)

5: PP (polypropylene)

6: PS (polystyrene)

7: OTHER (all other resins)

 

The RIC is found by locating a number surrounded by a triangle of three cycling arrows. This tells you which of the 7 categories of plastics (resin) your item is comprised of.

 

Identify if the plastic can or cannot be recycled

 

Not all types of plastic can be processed by your local recycling center. Here’s a quick guide to what can and cannot be recycled:

 

Always:

 

#1 and #2

 

PETE and HDPE are accepted by nearly every local recycling center. Products made of these plastics include soda bottles, water bottles, cleaning products, milk or juice jugs and shampoo bottles.

 

Sometimes:

 

#4 and #5

 

LDPE and PP are much less widely accepted by recycling centers. Before tossing these in the blue bin, check with your local recycling plant to see if they accept these types of plastics.

 

Never:

 

#3, #6, #7

 

These are the most nefarious plastics because due to their lack of durability or other factors, they cannot be recycled at all. If you can, avoid purchasing as many items containing these plastics as you can because there is little to no chance of them being recycled, yet they will still take decades to degrade if they end up in your local landfill instead.


Examples of products that contain these plastics are plastic wrap, cooking oil containers, Styrofoam cups, and vinyl products.

 

Can’t I Just Toss All Plastic Into the “Blue Bin” and Let My Recycling Center Figure it Out?

 

The invention of “single stream” recycling was the result of a huge push to get people to recycle at all when at-home recycling was incredibly uncommon. The idea was that all recyclable objects could go in one handy container to be later sorted at the recycling center. While this approach did get a lot more people recycling, it has some fundamental challenges.

 

The most notable being that it takes time and energy to sort through all these different plastics and pick out which ones can actually be processed by the facility. The more time and energy they have to dedicate to getting rid of un-recyclable material, the higher the operating costs and the less sustainable the entire recycling operation becomes.

 

So I Always Need to Separate My Recycling?

 

Yes and no. If your local recycling center is single stream, you can combine paper, aluminum, and recyclable plastics all into one container. However, you want to make sure you don’t contaminate your recyclable objects with non-recyclable objects. This includes:

 

-Non-recyclable plastics such as Styrofoam and plastic shopping bags. Not only can these not be recycled by your local center, they can clog machinery and cause damage if not caught and removed by the recycling center workers.

 

-Paper products or plastics soiled with grease or oils. Grease and oil break down plastics, which means that they can contaminate the recyclable plastics in your bin or at the processing center. If you toss greasy items into your recycling, it can contaminate your entire bin and cause even recyclable plastics to be discarded.

 

-Bottles that contained hazardous or toxic materials.

 

-Batteries containing mercury or other toxins.

 

When in doubt, check with your local recycling facility to see if/how you should separate your recycling and what items you can and cannot recycle.

 

Why is Proper Recycling So Important?

 

While the global plastic problem goes far beyond proper recycling, recycling as much as we can makes a difference in keeping plastic out of landfills and extending its useful lifespan. By doing our individual part by practicing proper recycling, we reduce unnecessary strain on our local recycling plants, reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills, and improve the sustainability of our current recycling programs.

 

In addition to proper recycling, you can also help reduce plastic waste by purchasing products from companies dedicated to producing plastic-free, sustainable products that don’t contribute to plastic pollution. RIO not only helps you stock up on sustainable goods but is also dedicated to using the proceeds to rid our oceans of plastic once and for all and preserve our one ocean for generations to come.