What do the numbers mean? Plastic Identification and Recycling

Take a moment to look through your recycling bin. The plastic items that you may find can vary wildly in size, shape, and color. They also can be made from many different types of plastics. If you look at the bottom of your plastic container, you should see a symbol of three arrows forming a triangle. Inside that symbol is a number, from 1 to 7. This number identifies what type of plastic the container is made of and allows for proper sorting at recycling facilities. Just as paper and glass must be sorted before processing, different types of plastics have various properties which require them to be separated for processing.

It is also important to know what types of plastic your recycling hauler accepts. The most commonly recycled plastics are #1, 2, and 5, but some haulers sort by shape of container instead. Always check with your hauler as there is a lot of variability in processing plants and what they can accept.

Plastic by the Number:

#1- PET or PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate

Number 1 plastic is one of the most generally used plastics. This type of plastic is meant for single use items such as soda and water bottles, salad dressing bottles, and food jars and containers. It can be recycled into new bottles or polyester fiber.

#2- HDPE – High Density Polyethylene

Number 2 plastic has the benefit of a high strength-to-density ratio that makes it durable and fit for multiple reuses. HDPE can also handle a range of temperatures. Clear HDPE can be recycled into new containers, and colored HDPE can be made into new items such as pens, chairs or toys.

#3- PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride

PVC plastic is made strong and elastic by an additive called phthalates. Number 3 plastic can be found in pipes, shower curtains, floors and clear food wrap. This plastic proves difficult to recycle because of the many types of additives used to make it.

#4- LDPE – Low Density Polyethylene

Low Density Polyethylene is more elastic than HDPE and is used for products such as plastic films, disposable bags and squeezable bottles. When made into plastic bags, most recycling haulers will not accept them in the curbside bins, but there are many dropoff locations to recycle this type of plastic. Recycled LDPE can be made into more bags and plastic films.

#5- PP – Polypropylene

This type of plastic is light, durable and heat resistant. It is commonly found in plastic tubs and caps, kitchenware, and rope. Polypropylene can be recycled into fibers.

#6- PS – Polystyrene

Number 6 plastic is polystyrene, or more commonly known as Styrofoam. It is commonly found in disposable cups, egg cartons, and to-go food containers. This type of plastic is difficult to recycle because of its light weight and that it is easily broken down into smaller pieces. While not frequently recycled, check with your local processing facility to see if they recycle #6 plastic.

#7- Other

While number 7 doesn’t identify a specific type of plastic, it identifies the item to be either a new plastic, bioplastic, or a combination of the above types. It can also stand for PC (polycarbonate) plastic. Products that have the number 7 identifier are sports bottles and equipment, lids and medical and dental equipment. Most facilities do not recycle number 7 plastics because there are no standard protocols for using and reusing this plastic.

More information about the different types of plastic can be found here and statewide recycling information can be found on the DEP website.

Recycling is Required

Municipal and state regulations require that residents, commercial establishments and non-residential establishments recycle all recyclable materials.  Commonly recycled materials include:

  • Paper – newspaper, office/copy paper, glossy paper, color paper, cardboard, junk mail, phone books, cereal/cracker boxes
  • Plastic – bottles and jugs No. 1-7
  • Glass – clear, green and brown containers
  • Metal – aluminum, steel, tin, and bimetal cans and containers

You should check with your hauler for a complete list of acceptable recyclable materials.