Most plastics are recyclable,” says Keith Christman, senior director of packaging at the American Chemistry Council Plastics Division, in Arlington, Virginia. The problem is, not all plastics are recyclable everywhere. Almost all recycling programs accept plastics numbered 1 and 2. (Look for the number on the underside of a product, inside the ubiquitous triangle of chasing arrows.) But the numbers are not regulated federally; 39 states have various rules, so what you see can be inconsistent. “The plastics industry has put the recycle symbol on everything,” says Marti Matsch of Eco-Cycle, in Boulder, Colorado. “People think the symbol means the item is recyclable, but that’s not always true.” More than a tool for recycling, “the symbol identifies what a certain plastic is made of,” Christman says.
Here, a cheat sheet.
- No. 1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE), the most widely recycled plastic, is used for soft-drink bottles and is also commonly found in textiles, which explains why a bottle can be turned into fleece.
- No. 2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is used for detergent bottles and grocery bags.
- No. 3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or vinyl) is what salad-bar containers are made from.
- No. 4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is used for dry-cleaning and fresh-produce bags.
- No. 5: Polypropylene (PP) iswhat makes bottle caps, yogurt cups, and drinking straws.
- No. 6: Polystyrene (PS) is also known as Styrofoam.
- No. 7: These “other” plastics, such as polycarbonate baby bottles, are generally not recyclable at most centers.