My community accepts plastics for recycling, and I see the recycling symbol on all my plastics, but my neighbor has mentioned 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?
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.