What Do the Numbers Mean in Recycling Triangles on Plastic?

A plastic bottle can take hundreds of years to decompose, and even then many of the components of the bottle will never break down completely. Various plastic products are identified with a number within the recycling symbol. This number indicates the type of plastic that the product is made out of. By understanding this number, consumers can better understand if and how they can recycle the product.

Type Number 1

Plastics marked with a number 1 are made of polyethylene terephthalate also known as PETE or PET. This is found in soda and water bottles, some medicine containers, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers and salad dressing and vegetable oil containers. PET plastics can be recycled into a variety of items including bean bags, ropes, car bumpers, polar fleece and carpet, as well as fiberfill for coats, sleeping bags and life jackets. Plastics marked with a number 1 are the easiest to recycle and are in high demand by re-manufacturers. This plastic is widely accepted by recycling facilities and curbside recycling programs.

Type Number 2

Number 2 plastics are high-density polyethylene plastics, or HDPE. Examples of HDPE plastics are shampoo bottles, butter and yogurt containers, and the bottles used for bleach, laundry detergent and motor oil. When recycled, HDPE can be re-manufactured into toys, floor tile, picnic tables, plastic rope and fencing. Type 2 plastics are easy to recycle and are widely accepted by both recycling centers and curbside recycling programs.

Type Number 3

Type 3 plastics are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC. PVC is commonly associated with the PVC pipes available for home projects. PVC is also used in shower curtains, baby bottle nipples and a variety of clear bottles and packaging products. Recycled PVC can be used to make decks, mud flaps, gutters, flooring and cables. Unfortunately, PVC is difficult to recycle. It is occasionally accepted by plastic lumber makers.

Type Number 4

Plastics marked with a number 4 are low-density polyethylene, or LDPE. This plastic is used in grocery bags, bread and sandwich bags and squeezable bottles as well as clothing, carpet and furniture. LDPE is difficult to recycle. Some recycling centers do accept type 4 plastics, but most curbside programs do not. The best way to recycle many type 4 plastics is to reuse them. Shoppers can greatly decrease the number of LDPE shopping bags in landfills by declining to accept them at stores, and opting instead to carry their own reusable tote bags.

Type Number 5

Number 5 plastics are polypropylene, or PP. This type of plastic is used to make food storage containers, ketchup and syrup bottles, straws and plastic bottle caps. When recycled, PP can be used for battery cables, ice scrapers, bicycle racks, bins and trays. Polypropylene is difficult to recycle, though it is still occasionally accepted through curbside programs as well as at some recycling centers. As new methods for recycling PP are becoming more common, an increased number of recycling centers are accepting it.

Type Number 6

Type 6 plastics are made from polystyrene (PS) also known as Styrofoam. These items include coffee cups, disposable cutlery and plates, meat trays, packing peanuts, insulation, egg cartons and carryout containers. Re-manufactured PS can be used in foam insulation, switch panels, egg cartons, foam packing and carryout containers. Type number 6 plastics are difficult to recycle, though they are still accepted by some recycling plants and curbside programs.

Type Number 7

Type 7 plastics are different from all other categories of plastic materials because these plastics are made from a combination of plastics or a plastic material that does not fall under any of the other classifications. Number 7 plastics include 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials, DVDs, computer and MP3 player casings and many plastic signs and displays. Type 7 plastic is the most difficult to recycle, though it can occasionally be re-manufactured into plastic lumber. Some type 7 plastics are uniquely recycled by artists who find ways to fashion the materials into new objects.