Know Your Numbers

Credit Tyler Varsell; Shutterstock

Coinciding with Earth Day  the NYTimes Environment team recently initiated the Climate FWD newsletter, emailing readers weekly with stories and insights about climate change.

We’ve been writing about plastics since the inception of this site; it’s alternatives, environmental impacts, and even creative applications with it’s existence.

Studies are clear that reducing plastic use and production is multiple steps better than recycling, yet considering the ubiquity of the material, the latter has it’s place.

One Thing You Can Do: Know Your Plastics

Ever notice those recycling symbols, the triangles with the numbers inside, on plastic packaging and containers? I always assumed they meant the plastic was recyclable. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Those numbers are resin identification codes, and they tell what kind of plastic the item is made from. And not all plastic is created equal.

Identifying what types of plastics are recyclable can be challenging because plastics do not always carry a resin code and because not all recycling programs are equal, either. Generally speaking, though, some categories of plastic are more widely recyclable in the United States.

“We always encourage people to focus on Nos. 1, 2 and 5 because we have great markets for them in the U.S.,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, a major garbage collection and recycling company.

Water and soda bottles, milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, yogurt cups and butter tubs are mostly made of these plastics. You could lend a helping hand by rinsing these kinds of containers and removing labels.

On the other hand, placing items made with resins 4, 6 and 7 in the recycling bin is usually not a good idea. These are used to make squeezable bottles, plastic bags, pouches, meat trays, some clamshells and disposable plates and cups. Sorting plants will quite likely throw them in a landfill, together with other items considered contaminants.

Finally, No. 3 — the category that covers the PVCs often used in packaging for cosmetics, some food wrap, blister packs and pipes — is particularly bad. Because of its chemical composition, it can contaminate large batches of plastics in the recycling system that would otherwise be acceptable.

Read the newsletter here.

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