Let’s talk recycling and that feel-good chasing arrow symbol we’ve all come to associate with the ‘eco-aware’.
The plastic crisis is bleak. Of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only a mere 9% has been recycled. The majority creeps into our streets, clogs our waterways, and chokes our wildlife. Plastic makes up our cars, toys, home goods, textiles, electronics, clothes - in short, it’s in nearly everything. With the never-ending flood of plastics in the market, it’s impossible as a consumer to dodge the vexing material. Spotting that green-signaling triangle offers us a beacon of hope; by tossing it into the recycling bin, we think we’ve evaded the worst of it.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it generally pans out. The recycling system isn’t clear and in actuality, designed to be confusing. That chasing arrow symbol does not always signal recycling; it's an identifier for the type of plastic that makes up the product. Known as a plastic resin symbol, it was designed specifically to look like the recycling symbol (and convince people that every item with one of these symbols was recyclable) in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (nowadays the Plastics Industry Association).
This Resin Identification Coding System (RIC) appears on plastic products that identify the plastic resin out of which the product is made. The numbers 1 through 7 inside indicate the type of plastic resin, the six most commonly used plastics with a seventh class a catchall for everything else, and ultimately can inform you if it even qualifies for recycling.
Here’s what each plastic recycling symbol means, along with examples of what it’s typically found in:
1. Plastic Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE
PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common plastic for single-use bottled beverages, because it's inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to recycle.
Found in: soda, water, and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; some food storage containers (peanut butter, vegetable oil, ketchup)
* We use this recycled material to make up our lanyards, reusable carry bags, and (coming soon!) dog leashes.
2. Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE
HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a versatile plastic often used in packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many types of goods.
Found in: Milk jugs; juice bottles; bleach, detergent, and other household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; butter and yogurt tubs; cereal box liners
3. Plastic Recycling Symbol #3: PVC or V
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) is tough and weathers well, so it's commonly used for things like piping and siding. PVC is also cheap, so it's found in plenty of products and packaging. Because chlorine is part of PVC, it can result in the release of highly dangerous dioxins during manufacturing. Remember to never burn PVC.
Found in: Shampoo and cooking oil bottles, blister packaging, wire jacketing, siding, windows, piping
4. Plastic Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE
LDPE (low density polyethylene) is a flexible plastic with many applications that is becoming more common to recycle.
Found in: plastic bags (bread, frozen food, and shopping bags); tote bags; squeezable bottles; furniture
* We use this recycled material to make up our shipping bags!
5. Plastic Recycling Symbols #5: PP
PP (polypropylene) has a high melting point, so it's often chosen for containers that encounter hot liquid.
Found in: Some yogurt containers, syrup and medicine bottles, caps, straws
6. Plastic Recycling Symbol #6: PS
PS (polystyrene) can be made into rigid or foam products — like trademark Styrofoam. Styrene monomer (a type of molecule) can leach into foods and is a possible human carcinogen.
Found in: Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, medicine bottles
7. Plastic Recycling Symbol #7: Miscellaneous
A wide variety of plastic resins that don't fit into the previous categories are lumped into this one.
Found in: Three- and five-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon fabric.
In the United States, use of the RIC in the coding of plastics has led to ongoing consumer confusion about which plastic products are recyclable. Every municipality has its own recycling guidelines that inform how plastics can be collected and (hopefully) recycled.
This month, we challenge you to be more recycling aware and mindful of your recycling habits.
1. Find your municipality’s list of recyclables online or by contacting your local government. Let us know how your city or town sorts and what they accept as recyclable.
2. Locate 7-10 plastic-containing items in your household (or elsewhere) and record the RIC. Can it eventually be recycled near you?
Record what you find and submit it through the Submit Your Work form.