Plastics Recycling by the Numbers

Out of sheer boredom, I bet there has been a time when you've flipped your Coke bottle over and seen that little number on the bottom by the recycling triangle. "What does that mean?" you've asked yourself. Well, I asked myself the same thing, so out of sheer boredom, here is the explanation.

Just as aluminum and glass cannot be recycled and blended together to make a new product, different types of plastics cannot be mixed to make new plastic products. For this reason, a number system was created to discern one type of plastic from another. When corporations buy recycled plastic from recyclers, they request the plastic number that will best meet their needs.

Here are the various number distinctions and what products they are generally used for...

  1. Plastics marked #1 - These contain Polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Most 1 products are soda, beer, and food bottles or trays. When recycled, PET turns into long fibers which are generally used for carpets, jacket filling, t-shirt fabrics and shopping bags.
  2. Plastics marked #2 - Milk and water jugs fill the 2 category. These are high-density polyethylene (HD-PE) plastics. Clear HDPE is easy to recycle into new containers. Bottles that are made of colored HDPE is often found in plastic lumber.
  3. Plastics marked #3 - These products are made of vinyl or polyvinyl chloride. They make up the clear food packaging and plumbing pipe category. Very few products can be found in this category, so unfortunately recyclers focus more on the bigger money makers instead.
  4. Plastics marked #4 - This is low-density polyethylene (LDPE). This type of plastic is very flexible so it works great for plastic bags. The problem is that plastic bags are very difficult to recycle because it actually requires less energy to make a new bag then to recycle an old one. They go to the dump. This is why it is sooo important to use cloth bags rather than plastic bags at the store. BRING YOUR OWN BAG!
  5. Plastics marked #5 - You know this plastic, its the one your yogurt, butter and these types of containers are made of. Unless there is an industry near your home that really needs this type of plastic, it is not likely recycled and is sent to the dump. Try re-using them yourself in place of tupperware.
  6. Plastics marked #6 - This is polystyrene. The most evil plastic of all. This is what CD jackets, eating utensils, and take-out food containers are made of. Styrofoam is also made of this plastic. This is almost never recycled and takes a very long time to decompose. It also hurts wildlife by getting stuck in digestive tracks.
  7. Plastics marked #7 - Only buy this plastic if you plan on keeping it forever. It is impossible to recycle. Look for #7 plastics on imported goods and lids. Just stay away from #7!
So there you go. A breakdown of the plastic number system for recycling. I guess the moral of the story is that plastic is not a natural product. It was created by scientists. Technology is great, but not often great for the environment. Whenever you can, stay away from plastic, and always recycle.

My thanks to Jane Bogner for the info


  1. Is there any recycle numbers of 8 or 9?

  2. what are 01 and 02 plastics, are they recyclable?

  3. So, when you put out your plastics in the "plastics" recycle been and the recycle truck takes it away, so they then sort through it and only recycle certain numbered plastics? and throw the rest away?

  4. To the last comment, essentially yes. Check with your municipal waste group to find out exactly which plastics they'll accept to save them time in sorting out unnecessary garbage.

  5. I could not find the plastic recycling numbers for DC on the city governmnent website. Very frustrating. It used to be 1 or 2, and 5. Anyone know what it is for sure? Thanks, Nancy