The ABC’s & 123’s of Plastic Recycling

Plastic: Once the go-to-material for butterfingers and the accident-prone, quickly soared into superstar status, filling every nook and cranny of our lives with virtually shatter-proof, undeniably durable, candy-colored lifestyle staples. From cool invention to cultural ubiquity, plastic has enjoyed a long, glorious heyday… that is, until we started realizing that it’s been responsible for tainting our oceans, killing wildlife and contaminating our bodies. Here’s what you need to know to demystify the plastic monster, make better consumer decisions and ideally keep as much petroleum-based packaging out of the landfill as you possibly can!


Alter Egos: Good old polyethylene terephthalate, otherwise known as PETE or PET.

What It Is: Petroleum-based ethylene glycol condensed with terephthalic acid. 

What It’s Used For: The base for some synthetic chewing gums (YES!), beverage bottles and assorted food containers for everything from salad dressing and cooking oil to instant meals, kitchenware and even Ziplock storage bags.

Best Qualities: Lightweight, durable, semi-rigid and impact-resistant.

Worst Qualities: Contains human carcinogens (phthalates such as acetaldehyde and detectable levels of BHT) that can potentially disrupt the endocrine system.

How To Recycle: Deposit all #1 containers and packaging in your curbside collection bins for municipal pick-up.


Alter Egos: Known as high density polyethylene, it also goes by the street name ‘HDPE’.

What It Is: Easily identified by its opaque appearance, this petroleum-based material consists of flexible, soft ethylene monomers.

What It’s Used For: Toys, bottles/caps, assorted household cleaning and personal care products, various dairy products (milk, butter, yogurt), cereal bags, TYVEK mailing envelopes, some plastic garbage and shopping bags, automobile parts, deck building material, disposable gloves, etc.

Best Qualities: Far more rigid than #1 plastic, HDPE is easily recyclable and typically doesn’t leach harmful chemicals like other plastic types.

Worst Qualities: Nevertheless, studies have found manmade chemicals such as Chimassorb 81, Irganox PS 800, Irganix 1010, Irganix 1076 and BHT in food products packaged inside of HDPE (none of which the human body should be exposed to).

How To Recycle: Deposit all #2 containers and packaging in your curbside collection bins for municipal pick-up.


Alter Egos: Polyvinyl chloride, vinyl, V or PVC.

What It Is: A petroleum-based vinyl thermoplastic.

What It’s Used For: Even more types of food packaging/wrap as well as containers for personal care products, shower curtains, basic medical supplies, household sewer pipes, billboards, water bottles, infant pacifiers/toys, vinyl records, clothing, outdoor furniture, door/window frames, cosmetics, flooring, etc.

Best Qualities: Cheap to produce and incredibly resilient – takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (Vinyl products have an average life span of 34 years!)

Worst Qualities: During the manufacturing process of vinyl (as well as during its use and ultimate disposal), toxic dioxins are released into the atmosphere. Additionally, PVC plasticizers can migrate into food and trigger a whole host of health problems associated with the eyes, ears, skin, liver, lungs and reproductive system, including cancer. Worst still, very few municipalities actually recycle it.

How To Recycle: While this material is capable of being recycled, the process is both challenging and costly, two major factors that – coupled with the low market price of recycled PVC – typically discourage municipalities from jumping on board. In order to do right by the environment, your best bet at this point in time is to repurpose whatever PVC plastics you have by exercising creative DIY skills.


Alter Egos: LDPE or low density polyethylene.

What It Is: Petroleum-based thermoplastic.

What It’s Used For: The notoriously detrimental beverage six pack rings that ultimately harm marine life, synthetic fabric made into wearable garments/household furnishings/carpeting, trash can liners, laboratory bottles, dry cleaning bags, produce/frozen food bags, film wrap, food storage containers and even prostheses.

Best Qualities: Easy to clean, flexible, durable.

Worst Qualities: Quite like its high density cousin HDPE, LDPE is prone to leaching specific chemicals like Chimassorb 81, Irganox PS 800, Irganix 1010, Irganix 1076 and BHT into edible items.

How To Recycle: Unless you live in a progressive recycling region (which are few and far between), you’re probably wondering how in the heck to make the most of this pervasive type of plastic. The good news is that you can now participate in the North Face Polybag Brigade, in which donated #4 polybags will be transformed into reusable tote bags, bicycle racks and other practical post-consumer items courtesy of Terracycle… so that’s something. As for all of the other products that LDPE is made into, repurpose-repurpose-repurpose!


Alter Egos: Polypropylene or PP for short.

What It Is: Lightweight, petroleum-based resin plastic.

What It’s Used For: Brita water pitcher filters, child (and sometimes adult) proof prescription bottles, Tom’s of Maine Deodorant packaging, drinking straws, Preserve brand kitchen/household/personal care products, bottle caps, some take-out containers, yogurt cups, etc.

Best Qualities: Purportedly eco-friendlier since companies that favor comparably lighter weight PP ultimately use roughly 30 percent less plastic overall.

Worst Qualities: Two estrogenic chemicals — oleamide and quaternary ammonium biocides — leach from #5 plastic, potentially compromising brain function

How To Recycle: If your municipality doesn’t accept #5 plastic, countrywide Whole Foods locations typically participate in the Preserve ‘Gimme 5’ recycling program, so keep an eye out for their collection bins located at the front of the store (you can also mail your stash of #5 plastics directly to Preserve). Similarly, brick and mortar Aveda locations accept #5 rigid plastic screw-off and flip top caps from liquid laundry detergent, beverage bottles, food containers, among other products.


Alter Egos: Polystyrene, PS or that old familiar eco-villain, Styrofoam.

What It Is: An aromatic petroleum-based thermo-polymer

What It’s Used For: Disposable plastic/foam plates, hot beverage cups and cutlery, CD jewel cases, food containers such as the clamshell variety, smoke detectors, Styrofoam packaging peanuts and building insulation.

Best Qualities: There is an increased desirability to recycle this type of plastic based on ever-inflated oil prices.

Worst Qualities: Non-biodegradable and environmentally persistent for as long as several hundred years, the chemicals in #6 plastic also like to set up shop in the fat reserves of the human body, where they are stored away for a rainy day, resulting in the potential for cancer of the lymphatic system.

How To Recycle: Unfortunately, this is yet another type of plastic that municipalities rarely, if ever, collect due to the need for specialized equipment and processing facilities. Whenever possible, purposely avoid purchasing products made with #6 plastic (aka ‘pre-cycling’) and if you’re already stuck with a bunch of plasticky odds and ends, upcycle your heart out.


Alter Egos: Polycarbonate, straight-n-simple.

What It Is: This is technically a ‘catch-all’ category for other types of plastic outside of the #1 – #6 realm. Oddly enough, it includes petroleum-based styrene acrylonitrile, acrylonitrile styrene (AS/SAN) or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), as well as modern eco-alternatives derived from plant based materials such as sugar, potato and corn.

What It’s Used For: Reusable water bottles, compact disks, LEGO building blocks, cell phones, toothbrushes, Tupperware/other food storage containers, sunglasses, etc.

Best Qualities: Lasts forever!

Worst Qualities: Um, Bisphenol A for starters. That pervasive little chemical – which is detected in the urine of the majority of the American population – is directly linked to a compromised immune system, diabetes, premature puberty, reproductive challenges and cancer.

How To Recycle: This is yet another stumper since very few, if any, regions participate in #7 recycling programs (although certain Colorado residents can count themselves among the lucky few). Check Earth 911’s handy nationwide recycling search engine first and if you discover that you’re plum out of luck, make it your personal mission to ban #7 plastics from entering your household from this point forward.

Image: Mr. T in DC

For more juicy green goodness, follow Elizah via Twitter @elizahleigh