Recycling: a Numbers Game

Turn a plastic container on its head and on the bottom you’ll likely find the well-known recycling triangle logo made of three linking arrows. Inside the triangle is typically a number, from 1 to 7. If you’re like most people, you assume that the logo means the plastic is reusable as long as it’s sent to a recycling facility via a blue bin. But contrary to popular belief, the presence of the logo and numeric code does not automatically guarantee that the product is reusable or recyclable. Understanding what the numbers mean lets consumers take a stand by choosing plastics that can be recycled and rejecting the ones that can’t break down or be reused, or that pose health risks. Here’s a brief synopsis of what each number means.

  1. PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate is the clear, hard plastic used for water and pop bottles and other food containers. It’s intended to be used only once, then recycled; most recycling facilities will accept it, crushing it to make flakes used to make new bottles and fleece. There are no known health risks, but the long-term fragmenting of the plastic could leach chemicals, thus the importance of not reusing bottles. 
  2. HDPE: Stiffer than #1 plastic, high-density polyethylene is a resilient material used for milk jugs, yogurt containers, shampoo and detergent bottles, and plastic “lumber.” It’s highly recyclable, accepted by most recycling facilities, and it’s also reusable. 
  3. PVC: Polyvinyl chloride is soft and flexible, and you’ll find it in everything from cling wrap and garden hoses, to teething rings, window frames and blister packaging. PVC is not commonly recycled, and requires virgin materials to manufacture. It also contains the suspected carcinogen phthalate, and should be avoided. 
  4. LDPE: Low-density polyethylene is the soft plastic used for bread bags and shopping bags. There are no known health risks associated with it, so it can be reused. And although it can be recycled, it isn’t often accepted by recycling programs.
  5. PP: Tough and lightweight, polypropylene is heat-resistant and also serves as a barrier against moisture. It’s used in plastic bottle caps, disposable diapers, medicine bottles and straws. It can safely be reused, and many municipalities take it for recycling.
  6. PS: Polystyrene, a.k.a. Styrofoam, is found in disposable coffee cups and take-out food containers. It’s generally not accepted by recycling programs and also contains the known carcinogen styrene, so best to avoid.
  7. Other: A catch-all for plastics made from resins other than numbers 1 to 6, #7 usually refers to polycarbonate, used for items such as large water-cooler bottles, car parts and reusable personal water bottles. This number also includes bioplastics and biodegradable, compostable polymers, indicated with the acronym PLA (polylactic acid). The packaging used for produce and other foods is often made of #7 plastic that contains Bisphenol A, the known hormone disruptor, which has been banned from use in the manufacture of sippy cups and baby bottles and voluntarily shunned by some brands that make water bottles (look for “BPA-free” by the recycling logo).
Did you know?

Not all recycling facilities are created equal. What kinds of plastics are accepted by recycling programs varies from municipality to municipality, and is determined by the types of plastics that a given jurisdiction is able to recycle because of existing facilities and machinery, or because of the marketability of the collected plastics to facilities that make new plastic products.

Take action

A plastic that is recycled in Montreal or Medicine Hat isn’t necessarily recycled in Toronto or Tofino. To find out what goes into the blue bin in your hometown, check in with your local city hall.