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Recycling—What No One Told You

Updated: Jun 5

The numbers found on the bottom of plastic containers are regularly referred to as Recycling Codes, but what if I told you that those numbers are actually Resin Identification Codes (RIC) that distinguish what type of plastic was used in the manufacturing process? This does not mean that items will be recycled when placed in a recycling bin. Putting a recycling symbol around the resin code is misleading, it sends a message to the public all plastic items will this symbol are going to be recycled, when that is often not the case. This is one of the largest misconceptions when it comes to recycling and is indicative of why the U.S. recycling rate in 2018 was only 8.7% and hasn't increased much since.


Like many countries, the U.S. plastic recycling system relies heavily upon consumer participation to ensure that reusable materials are able to find a second life. The problem is, we don’t have clear and accessible education on plastic recycling, leaving most consumers in the dark about what materials can or cannot be recycled. Let's dive into the reality of recycling in the U.S., its history, what all those numbers mean, and some alternative ways to reduce plastic waste.



What do Resin Identification Codes (AKA Recycling Codes) Mean?

The numbers seen on the bottom of plastic containers are actually Resin Identification Codes (RIC) that distinguish what type of plastic it is. Contrary to popular belief, they do not signify that an item will get recycled when put into a recycling bin. So why are these numbers printed with a recycling symbol around them? This happens because the symbol was never registered as a trademark, so it is free for anyone to use without many legal restrictions [7]. Resin Identification Codes (RIC) were developed to identify the type of plastic an item is made from.


There has been discussions about the recycling symbol being changed to a solid triangle to avoid confusion on recycling, but this has not yet become a legal requirement [10]. This is why we still see a recycling symbol used in conjunction with resin codes. In order to replace the current symbol with a less confusing (aka misleading) symbol, current legislation would need to change. In the meantime, one way that we can improve how Americans understand and participate in recycling, is through the spreading of information about how U.S. recycling currently functions. Let’s start by breaking down each resin code; what type of plastic it is, what it’s used in, and its recyclability.

Examples of recycling numbers 1-7: PET_HDPE_PVC_LDPE_PP_PS
Resin Identification Codes by: Plastic Detox

#1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

  • Recyclable in most curbside bins

  • Commonly used for soft drink bottles, water bottles, and laundry detergent containers

  • Any plastic that encounters food/drink must be first approved by the FDA, and they choose whether or not it is deemed safe to use [5]

  • Single-use item, this plastic can absorb bacteria and flavors—should not be reused

  • Recycling rate: 27% [6]


#2 – High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

  • Recyclable in most curbside bins

  • Commonly used for juice containers, household cleaners, hair care products, and milk jugs

  • Recycling rate: 31% [6]


#3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (V or PVC)

  • Not recyclable in most curbside bins

  • (In rigid form) Can be used for commercial products like plumbing pipes and building materials

  • (In supple form) Can be used for coating on clothing and leather goods [6]

  • Avoid use of this form of plastic when possible

  • Recycling rate of 3%: [6]


#4 – Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

  • Not recyclable in most curbside bins

  • Commonly used for shopping bags, food bags, trash can liners, food storage, produce bags, and the majority of plastic wraps

  • Recycling rate: 7% [6]


#5 – Polypropylene (PP)

  • Recyclable in most curbside bins

  • Commonly used for ketchup bottles, medicine bottles, drinking straws, take-out meals, deli foods, and most plastic containers

  • Recycling rate: 18% [6]


#6 – Polystyrene (PS)

  • Not recyclable in most curbside bins

  • Very few specialty recycling centers accept #6 plastic

  • Commonly used for disposable cups/plates/bowls, take-out containers, and raw meat trays

  • Can leach styrene into food

  • Avoid use of this material

  • Recycling rate: 18% [6]


#7 – Miscellaneous/Other (anything that doesn’t fall into resin codes 1-6)

  • Not recyclable in most curbside bins

  • Commonly used for car electronic parts

  • Mixed with multiple types of plastic, making them impossible to recycle efficiently

  • Avoid use in your home

  • Recycling rate: 2% [6]


History of Recycling in the U.S.

The History of Recycling Timeline by Plastic Detox
Recycling Timeline by Plastic Detox

Recycling itself is not a new concept, given the idea of repurposing scraps seems to have been around for millennia. However, the process of recycling scraps into new materials on a large industrial scale occurred on both sides of the Atlantic between 1800 and 1880 with items like rags, paper, rubber, and metals most commonly being recycled [16]. According to Zimring, 2005, “The first national trade association for scrap firms was the National Association of Waste Material Dealers (NAWMD), founded in 1913” (they would later change their name to National Association of Secondary Material Industries [NASMI]).


Americans were collecting more items than ever before, and in 1930, weekly garbage pickup began [16]. It was in the mid-19th century that mass-production really began to take off, and it became apparent that the mining of raw natural materials was unable to keep up with consumer product demand.


This was a perfect time for plastics to enter the mix. Plastic/synthetic items grew in popularity between 1945 and 1970 as cheaper alternatives to natural materials, but this introduction did not come without its challenges; material recyclers found that plastics created contamination of natural materials, deeming them non recyclable when mixed. This is when concerns of toxic threats to the environment really came to light. In 1970, The Nixon Administration established the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with a mission to protect the environment from contaminants of hazardous waste [16]. By the twentieth century, sanitary engineers took the responsibility of removing and handling waste from urban areas. This was viewed as one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases [12].


In 1907, Gary Anderson presented his recycling symbol design for the International Design Conference and won. This is the same symbol that is widely recognized and used today. It is important to note that the symbol has never been trademarked, meaning that this symbol is free for anyone to use without legal restrictions. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry developed a uniform coding system to simplify the sorting of plastic waste. Most U.S. states then required manufacturers to place resin codes on all plastic items, a practice that is now an international standard [8]. As mentioned in What Do Resin Identification Codes (AKA Recycling Codes) Mean, we now know that the recycling symbol and resin codes are frequently used together, creating a false impression that all plastic products can and will be recycled. This continues to be a point of contention for environmentalists and the plastic industry.


How To Increase U.S. Recycling Rates

Recycling programs today are set up to hold consumers and businesses responsible for shouldering the majority of everyday waste disposal. In 2018, the U.S. produced over 3 million tons of plastics and only 8.7% was recycled [16]. The U.S. remains one of the top consumers of plastic products. Based on our current recycling rate, it’s clear that what we are doing isn’t working. I believe this happens for four major reasons:


1. Lack of transparency from the plastic industry.

2. Lack of legislation to prevent misleading marketing.

3. Lack of education for the public about plastic and recycling.

4. Lack of resources and support to improve recycling systems.

During my research, I discovered some large-scale solutions that could improve the current state of U.S. recycling rates. First, to address the lack of information transparency, clear guidelines and restrictions are needed to protect consumers from the unknown harms of plastic, along with more laws to prevent misleading marketing.


Second, to improve recycling awareness, universities need to expand their core courses to include education on recycling and plastic pollution. A 2021 study surveyed universities that offer PhD degrees in environmental engineering or plastic/polymer engineering or technology, and out of 105 universities analyzed, only 9 offered courses on plastic recycling [2].


Third, improvements to the separation and sorting of plastic are also needed, such as offering recycling for a wider range of plastics in more locations. This would result in less contamination, higher efficiency, and reduce time and energy needed for the sorting process.


Lastly, to improve resources and support for recycling, we need more incentives from the government if they intend to inspire businesses and individuals to choose recycled goods. Incentives would help combat the fact that virgin (new) plastic is more affordable and typically of higher quality. These large-scale solutions may feel overwhelming, but having these goals in mind is important when fighting against plastic pollution. Here are some actions that individuals can take that make a big difference in fighting plastic pollution:


6 Steps Individuals Can do to Improve Recycling Rates

  1. Do your best to educate yourself (and others) on proper recycling practices by getting to know Resin Identification Codes. Plastic pollution will continue to grow year after year until collective change is made.

  2. When shopping for new products or food items, look for plastic-free options within your price range, check out these plastic alternative products.

  3. If plastic-free is not an option, look for options made with resin codes #1 or #2 as these have the highest recycling rate. Packaging accounts for 40% of virgin plastic production worldwide [6].

  4. After using an item, plastic or otherwise, be sure it is clean and dry from any residue. Do not recycle materials contaminated with food, infectious materials, hazardous chemicals, or radioactive materials. Doing so could contaminate other recyclable items, which will result in those items being sent to the landfill.

  5. Collect other plastics that are not accepted curbside and separate them based on their resin codes. I reuse old cardboard boxes and place them in my garage until I am ready to recycle. Visit Drop-off Directory to find drop off locations for hard to recycle plastic items near you.

  6. Items like plastic wrap, plastic film, and plastic bags can be recycled near the store front of many national retailers like Kroger, Safeway, Target, and Walmart. Flexible plastics, compostable plastic, and biobased plastics are problematic for the collection and sorting process—please do not include them in your curbside recycling bins.


Conclusion

The U.S. recycling system, while well intentioned, is currently incapable of keeping up with the growing amount of plastic waste with its current infrastructure. While more research is needed to improve our current recycling programs, here is what we do know:

  • Understanding that avoiding plastic (when possible) is the first step in reducing plastic pollution

  • Disposing of plastic is confusing, so do your best to recycle plastic properly - this will help to improve the likelihood of the plastic item getting recycled.

  • We need to push for more easily accessible resources to help inform the public about plastic manufacturing and proper disposal for plastic.

  • This is a group effort, improvement is needed from manufacturers, government, businesses and individuals combined!


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References

[1] Basuhi, R., Moore, E., Gregory, J., Kirchain, R., Gesing, A., & Olivetti, E. A. (2021). Environmental and economic implications of U.S. postconsumer plastic waste management. Resources, Conservation & Recycling, 167, N.PAG. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2020.105391

[2] Bennett, E. M., & Alexandridis, P. (2021). Informing the public and educating students on plastic recycling. Recycling, 6(4), 69.

[3] Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) (Feb. 2019). Plastic & Health: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet. Retrieved from: Plastic & Health - Center for International Environmental Law (ciel.org)

[4] Deloitte (May 2020). Reducing Plastic Pollution and Creating a True Circular Economy for Plastics through Extended Producer Responsibility. Analysis of the status and potential of EPR for plastics in Norway for WWF. Retrieved from: https://media.wwf.no/assets/attachments/Report_Deloitte_AS_WWF.pdf

[6] Kulkarni, G. S. (2018). 1 - Introduction to Polymer and Their Recycling Techniques. Recycling of Polyurethane Foams, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-323-51133-9.00001-2

[7] Liboiron, M. (July 2012). Designing a Reuse Symbol and the Challenge of Recycling’s Legacy. Retrieved from: https://discardstudies.com/2012/07/25/designing-a-reuse-symbol-and-the-challenge-of-recyclings-legacy/

[8] MacInnes, D. F., Jr. (2020). Plastics. Salem Press Encyclopedia of Science.

[9] National Institutes of Health (n.d.). Plastic Resin Codes. Retrieved from: https://orf.od.nih.gov/EnvironmentalProtection/WasteDisposal/Pages/PlasticResinCodes.aspx

[10] Northeast Recycling Council (2014). Plastic Codes and Recycling. Retrieved on 2/3/2023. Retrieved from: https://nerc.org/news-and-updates/blog/nerc-blog/2014/07/29/plastics-codes-and-recycling

[10] Plastics. (2018). Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, 1;

[11] Pollans, L.B. (2021). Resisting Garbage: The Politics of Waste Management in American Cities: Vol. First edition. University of Texas Press.

[12] Stanley, M. (n.d.) Microplastics. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/microplastics

[13] United States Environmental Protection Agency (n.d.) How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/recycle/how-do-i-recycle-common-recyclables#pla

[14] Verma R., Vinoda K.S., Papireddy M., Gowda A.N.S. Toxic pollutants from plastic waste-a review. Procedia Environ. Sci. 2016;35:701–708. doi: 10.1016/j.proenv.2016.07.069.

[15] Zimring, C. A. (2005). Cash For Your Trash : Scrap Recycling in America. Rutgers University Press.

[16] EPA (Dec. 2022) Plastics: Material-Specific Data. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data


1 Comment


Guest
Mar 24, 2023

Thanks for sharing such information, those who are in the business of recycling waste material or recycle junk cars must know all the above shared things that can help them improving their business through recycling.

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