Plastic is plastic, right? Think again. 

The EPA breaks down plastic products into seven different classifications. Coffee cups, yogurt cups, and takeout containers all fall into separate categories. And each plastic has to be recycled, or not recycled, differently. 

The 7 types of plastics are defined by their different chemical compositions. To make things easier for consumers, waste management officials have simplified these categories by using the numbers 1 to 7. 

So why are plastics divided up into these categories? 

The ability to recycle each type of plastic varies among recycling facilities. Some recycling facilities do not have the operational capacity to sort, recycle, and repurpose all 7 types of plastics. 

What many people do not realize is that the U.S. exports the majority of its plastic waste. The U.S. previously exported this waste to China. But recently, the Chinese government enacted a policy limiting imports of foreign recycled waste. The policy also set stringent contamination standards of the waste they will continue to import. 

This policy has created a major problem for U.S. recycling facilities. Domestic facilities are now sinking under piles of plastic waste. As a result, most recyclables are being sent to the incinerator or the landfill. 

Generally, most recycling plants are no longer accepting plastic types 3 through 7. These plastics typically have high levels of contamination at disposal. Under China’s new policy, they would likely fail to meet the contamination standards.

How to recycle at home 

Almost all manufacturers label plastic products to indicate their type. 

We have set out to explain the 7 types of plastics. This will help you understand what these labels mean, and remember which plastics belong in the recycling and which plastics belong in the trash. 

Properly sorting your recyclables at home can significantly streamline the curbside recycling process. This may seem like a small act. But it saves recycling facilities time and increases efficiency. 

Type 1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) 

Commonly known as polyester, this is a lightweight plastic commonly used for food and beverage packaging. This plastic can also trap gas and moisture well.  

Because of these properties, type 1 plastics are typically used for soda, water, fruit juice, and cooking oil containers. PET plastics are also used in jars of peanut butter and jam and microwavable trays. 

Type 1 plastics do pose potential health risks. 

Studies have found that bottles made of PET may leach endocrine disruptors. Researchers undertook a study to test estrogenic activity in mineral water stored in PET-bottled water. The results showed that 78% of different brands of mineral water packed in PET bottles had elevated estrogenic activity. 

Can you recycle these? Yes 

Type 2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) 

As the name suggests, high density polyethylene is a thick, durable plastic. 

HDPEs are stronger than type 1, PET plastics. Because of their durable nature, type 2 plastic containers are used for cleaning liquids and supplies. These can include bottles for shampoo, laundry detergent, and household cleaner. Other common bottled products made of HDPE are milk, water, and juice containers. 

Construction materials can be made of type 2 plastics. These materials include injection molding, plastic wood composites, and wire and cable covering. 

Can you recycle these? Yes 

Type 3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is a multifaceted plastic. Industrial materials manufacturers use PVC to make piping. “Clamshell” packaging, lunchboxes, 3-ring binders, toys, and medical tubes also contain PVC plastic. 

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), PVCs contain potentially harmful compounds. 

PVC plastics expose individuals to chlorine, BPAs, and phthalates. Phthalates are thought to be endocrine disruptors. The Washington Post writes that they have also been linked asthma and learning disabilities. 

Certain advocacy groups believe BPAs are harmful. However, NPR reports that a recent study by the National Toxicology Program found contrary evidence. New studies provide evidence that BPAs are not linked to cancer, obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. 

Can you recycle these? No

Type 4 – Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

LDPE plastic is light and flexible in form. It has heat sealing abilities and is relatively transparent. Because of these properties, LDPE is widely used in plastic packaging. 

Common uses of LDPE plastic include dry cleaning bags, shrink wrap, and coatings for paper milk cartons and coffee cups. Type 4 plastics are also used in squeezable bottles for condiments. 

It is important to note that often, paper coffee cups and milk cartons appear to be recyclable. However, the plastic lining inside the containers, typically LDPE plastic, makes them unfit for the recycling bin. 

Can you recycle these? No 

Note: Generally, type 4 plastics cannot be recycled. However, check with your curbside recycling program to see if your local facility does recycle these plastics.

Type 5 – Polypropylene (PP)

These plastics have a high melting point. Accordingly, they are commonly used in hot-food packaging, such as microwavable meals and takeout containers. 

Yogurt containers, deli wrappers, bottle caps, and syrup bottles also contain type 5 plastic.  

In addition to consumer products, PP plastic’s durability and chemical and heat resistance make it suitable for automobile parts. These automobile parts include battery cases, signal lights, battery cables, and ice scrapers. 

Can you recycle these? No 

Note: Generally, type 5 plastics cannot be recycled. However, check with your curbside recycling program to see if your local facility does recycle these plastics.

Type 6 – Polystyrene (PS) 

Type 6 plastics are lightweight and versatile. Styrofoam takeout containers, packing “peanuts”, and “clamshell” containers often consist of this form of plastic.   

According to the Baltimore Sun, styrofoam made of polystyrene contains carcinogenic chemicals. These chemicals can eventually lead to cancer if accumulated in high concentrations. 

Polystyrene plastics do not fully degrade. Nor do most recycling facilities accept type 6 plastics. Therefore, while cheap, accessible, and convenient, it is best to avoid using type 6 plastics when possible. 

Can you recycle these? No 

Type 7 – Other 

Generally, type 7 plastics include any polycarbonate material that does not fall under the 6 other categories. “Other” plastics can also be made up of a combination of resins. 

3-to-5 gallon water bottles, baby bottles, sippy cups, and cooler bags all typically contain type 7 plastics. 

Can you recycle these? No 

Next time you are about to throw a plastic product in the recycling bin, remember that there are 7 types of plastic. Check its number, and use this as a guide to know whether your recyclable actually belongs in the recycling or the trash. This will ease the sorting process for your local recycling facility. And, in the process, it will make you a more purposeful and conscientious recycler.


Author: Brendan Lui

Found this article informative? Read more about our toxic relationship with plastic here, or better yet, take action on your personal plastic footprint by going PlasticNeutral with rePurpose



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