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Because You Asked

Why Can’t I Recycle All Types of Plastic?

By Recyclebank |

The recycling symbol on your plastics only tells part of the story. Every community is different.

Dear Recyclebank: My community accepts plastics for recycling, and I see the recycling symbol on all my plastics, but my neighbor told me that I can't recycle my plastic take-out food containers. Why can I recycle some plastics but not all? How do I tell the difference? –Kelsey C.

Kelsey: The recycling symbol with the number inside it that you see on plastic containers is a resin identification code (RIC), a labeling system established by the Plastics Industry Association (SPI) in 1988. The number inside the arrows denotes what type of resin the piece is made from, whether it’s one of the six most common or the #7 “other” designation.

While this seems straightforward, not everything with an RIC can or should go into your recycling bin. Not all recyclers accept all types of plastic, and in fact, most don’t. Items with resin codes #1 (PETE) and #2 (HDPE) are the most frequently accepted types in curbside programs, while others are less common. The best way to figure out which plastics you can recycle is to check directly with your waste hauler or public works department. Each community has its own guidelines for which plastics are accepted, and these can vary widely. Even if a form of plastic is technically able to be recycled, your community may not have the means to do so, or it may not be cost-effective. As the SPI notes, the RIC is “not intended to be… a guarantee to consumers that a given item bearing the code will be accepted for recycling in their community.”

It’s very important that you never put a type of plastic that your hauler doesn’t accept in with the rest of your recycling. This is a form of contamination in the same way that throwing non-recyclable waste or food in the bin would be. It can result in a ruined batch of recycled plastic, or in otherwise perfectly good recyclable material ending up bound for the landfill. Also, plastic bags (a form of #4 LDPE) can get caught in sorting machines, resulting in lost time and costly repairs. Unless your waste hauler explicitly says otherwise, plastic bags should never go in your recycling bin.

The good news is that there may be drop-off or mail-in programs available for types of plastic that aren’t accepted in your area. Supermarkets often have drop-off receptacles for clean and dry plastic bags to be recycled safely. Other programs include Preserve’s Gimme 5 for #5 plastic and the EPS Industry Alliance’s recycling program for #6 plastic in the form of expanded polystyrene, as in packing peanuts and similar goods.

SOURCES: Earth911, Portland Mercury

Does it surprise you that the RIC isn’t a guarantee of recyclability? Do you know which plastic types are accepted by your recycling program? Let us know in the comments.

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  • Marco A. 4 years ago
    I thought I was going to learn "why" certain plastics cannot be recycled. This was a very generic article about what to do and not do with a few types mentioned. Not that there is anything wrong with that. I'm sure it's educational for some but in journalism your title is very important and should not set you up for disappointment.
  • aria c. 4 years ago
    Just learned from - those gift cards are made from basic material from PVC plastic. Who would have known!
  • Savannah S. 4 years ago
    Something that drives me insane is plastic gift cards that no longer have a balance or use, I hate throwing them away. Are there any recycling resources for those?
  • erica m. 4 years ago
    Great reminders.
  • Ann M. 4 years ago
    Whole Foods will take the Brita filters and Burt's Bees lip balm tubes.
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