Dear Recyclebank: I came across a plastic vanilla extract bottle that was not marked with chasing arrows or any coding numbers. How do I know if I can recycle it? –Amy K.
Dear Amy: We did a quick check of our own spice and extract bottles and found that they were marked with tiny numbers (1, 2, and 5 on our bottles) on the underside. These numbers correspond to the Resin Identification Code (RIC) that helps recycling companies determine what kind of plastic the product is made of, so they can bale and process it with like materials. Though your bottle is unmarked, if it was made from rigid clear or colored plastic, it is likely the same kind of plastic as ours: polyethylene terephthalate (#1), high-density polyethylene (#2) or polystyrene (#5).
The Plastics Industry Trade Association (SPI) introduced the RIC system in 1998 at the behest of recycling companies, who wanted to more easily sort plastics. Over the years, SPI has established guidelines that tell companies producing plastic products when to use an RIC and how to present the RIC on the product. These guidelines include the recommendation that they use a solid triangle instead of the chasing arrow triangle, and also specify that the code should be molded onto all containers large enough for the 1/2-inch symbol — that’s the minimum size — and all containers between 8 ounces and 5 gallons. If your bottle was smaller than this, that might be why it wasn’t labeled.
We double-checked with a spokesperson from the Plastics Industry Trade Association, who confirmed that the SPI’s guidelines are just that: Recommendations. She added that laws regarding RICs vary state by state — for instance, California law holds that rigid plastic containers sold in the state must be labeled with the code to identify the resin used, while many other states have less stringent laws — which helps to explain why not all plastics manufacturers will include RICs on their product, even if it fits within the size guideline.
Even if a bottle is marked with an RIC code, it’s important to remember that a code on a package does not guarantee that it is actually recyclable: The RIC identifies what type of plastic resin the bottle is made of, but not whether or not your hauler accepts that particular type of plastic (this is part of the reason why manufacturers are discouraged from using the chasing arrows icon). And, the bottle’s small size may affect its recyclability, too — small bottles can get mis-sorted at a MRF, and wind up at a landfill instead of being recycled.
As for your unidentified plastic bottle of vanilla extract: The best thing to do is consult your local curbside recycling program and ask about the specific product. That said, it’s most likely a #1 or #2 plastic, so if your hauler accepts #1 or #2 plastics, you’re probably safe putting it in your recycling bin. To make sure it doesn’t literally fall through the cracks at the MRF, though, we suggest you pop it into a larger container of the same resin (note that this recommendation applies to all super small plastic bottles).