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Recycling numbers, ranging 1 through 7, are used to specify what type of plastic is contained in an item and in turn how that item may be recycled. They are found inside an M.C. Escher style triangle of arrows turned in on themselves on the bottom of most plastic containers. Of the seven different types of plastic available on the American market, all are based on a different resin or crude oil product. Each of these seven varies in both its effect on environmental safety and ease of recycling.
First designed in 1988 by The Society of the Plastics Industries (SPI), recycling numbers or codes forced uniform conventions inside industrial use and allowed for recyclers to more easily identify and differentiate product. Because most recycling is done at the post-consumer level, recycling codes are found on almost all household packaging materials.
The Federal Trade Commisision in conjunction with SPI have set forth strict rules and guidelines for use of recycling codes on the open market. First, the codes are designed to identify only the type of resin in the plastic. As a point of law in 39 states, the codes must be placed on all bottles and rigid containers. The manufacture cannot make a claim of recyclability anywhere near the code nor can they place the word “recyclable” near the code. Also, it must be placed in an inconspicuous location on the product so as not to influence the decision of the customer. The code and symbols may not be altered in any way and must be placed as near to the center on the bottom of a container as possible. Finally, 8 ounce to 5 gallon containers that can structurally withstand the ½” minimum symbol size must have it molded or imprinted onto the bottom.
The following are the 7 different recycling codes that might be found on a plastic container.
- Plastic #1: This is polyethylene terephtalate. It is also known as PETE or PET. Water bottles and disposable soda bottles are generally made of this and it is most often clear. While generally considered to be safe, its porous surface does in fact let both flavor and bacteria accumulate. Because of this, these containers are best used and then recycled instead of being reused as a storage container. Most curbside pick-up programs and recycling centers accept this plastic.
- Plastic #2: HDPE is short for high density polyethylene, and is the most often recycled plastic. This plastic is considered as safe as PETE with the upside of having a very tight surface meaning that it will not pick up flavor or bacteria as easily. Juice bottles, milk jugs, butter tubs, and detergent bottles are made of this, and it is often opaque. Again, this plastic is considered to be very safe with a low risk of leaching. As with PETE, it is very easy to find a recycler who will handle HDPE.
- Plastic #3: Polyvinyl chloride is commonly known as PVC. While most of us know that it is used for plumbing and underground piping, PVC has also been used to make food wraps and bottles for cooking oil. Being a very tough plastic, PVC contains chemicals that make it unsafe to use near food that is being cooked. Phthalates exists in this material. These are softening chemicals that may potentially interfere with hormonal development in mammals. Every effort should be made to keep PVC’s away from prepared foods and one should under no circumstance warm food in a microwave while it is in plastic food wrap. Some wraps are listed as microwave safe the choice is up to the consumer. Unlike HDPE and PET, recycling programs do not often accept #3 plastic.
- Plastic #4: LDPE plastics are made of low-density polyethylene. This is a generally safe plastic that is found most often in the grocery store in the forms of grocery and bread bags. Also used to make squeezable bottles and occasionally food wraps, this plastic is similar to PVC only in that you will have a hard time finding someone who is capable of accepting it for post-consumption recycling.
- Plastic #5: Polypropylene is considered to be safe. It is a tough and resilient plastic that often ends up with a cloudy finish. Great examples of this are yogurt cups and similar wide-necked containers, as well as water and beverage bottles such as those used by the “Naked” brand company. It is also found in straws, mustard and syrup bottles, and surprisingly in medicine bottles as well. While problematic in the past, it has become increasingly easier to find centers and programs that will accept #5 plastics.
- Plastic #6: Polystyrene, or Styrofoam on the street, is a plastic type that has been a staple of American society for years. Found on any summer outing and at most picnics in the hands of running children and parents alike, Styrofoam cups and plates abound. You can also find this in cheap hubcaps. Growing evidence has shown that this hazardous material leaches a myriad of potentially toxic chemicals. This is especially true once the material is heated. This makes #6 a microwave no-no and something to avoid in general if at all possible for two reasons: it may harm your body and it is almost impossible to recycle.
- Plastic #7: Number 7 plastics are a group of any resin type not covered by types 1 through 6. Created after 1987, this code covers everything from the plastics used in iPhones to BPA. Many modern plastics are considered “number 7’s” so the use of these plastics is at the risk of the consumer. Again, consider the recent revelations concerning BPA. Some baby bottles, drink and food storage containers are made of #7 plastics and should in no way be considered safe. Compact discs, prescription sunglass lenses, riot shields, and auto headlights are also made of these varied materials. Because of the unknown contents, it is very hard to find a recycling program that will accept them.
In conclusion, the three little arrows and the number they surround are there to make it easier for us as consumers to protect ourselves while making environmentally conscious decisions when purchasing new products at the market. While a symbol may not guarantee acceptance at a recycling center, it will give you a much better idea where the item is headed during its “post-consumer” afterlife.