Last Update: August 10, 2023
You’re all ready to recycle and do your part for the environment, but then the questions start. Can I actually recycle this? Which numbers are OK for my bin? And what do those numbers mean anyway? Today we’re answering your recycling questions, and shedding some light on how to decode the mystery numbers on certain packages, bottles, and containers.
There’s no denying that plastic is a versatile material—it’s in everything from food utensils to toys—but too much of a good thing is also damaging the planet. The World Economic Forum’s 2016 study found that 32 percent of plastic packaging ends up in our oceans every year. And although many plastics can be recycled, National Geographic reports that 91 percent of plastic has never been recycled. The universal recycling symbol features three arrows that form a triangle, but it’s the plastic’s number that makes a difference as to whether or not the item can head to your recycle bin.
No one’s born knowing what recycling numbers mean. If you want to leave a more eco-friendly lifestyle, it takes a bit of effort to figure out the best recommendations for recycling at home. After reading through the basics, one of the most helpful things you can do is check in with your city—different locations will have waste management recycling rules.
Also known as polyethylene terephthalate, this is by far the most common plastic for single-use bottles (think: salad dressing bottles, water bottles, and more) (1). Why? This plastic is inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to recycle. Most curbside recycling programs pick it up, so long as containers have been emptied and rinsed out.
HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a popular plastic for juice bottles, milk cartons, yogurt tubs, cereal box liners, detergent bottles, and other household items (2). Like #1, this type of plastic can be picked up through most curbside recycling programs.
PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) are tough plastics often used for things like siding, piping, and some packaging such as shampoo bottles (3). Since chlorine is part of PVC, it harbors potentially harmful dioxins that can be released if burned. This type of plastic can’t be added to your recycle bin—contact your local waste management company to see if it offers a collection center.
LDPE (low density polyethylene) is a flexible plastic that doesn’t have a history of being easily recycled in residential communities (4). This type of plastic is often found in shopping bags, squeezable bottles, furniture, frozen fruit, and more. If your curbside program doesn’t offer pick up, check with your city’s waste management department for recommendations.
With a high melting point, PP (polypropylene) is often the plastic of choice for containers that need to hold warm liquids (5). Some curbside recycling programs allow you to recycle #5—just be sure to clean and rinse containers before tossing.
PS (polystyrene) is also known as styrofoam. Since this material is roughly 98 percent air, most recycling programs don’t accept it in foam form, but items like egg cartons, disposable plates, and carry-out containers may be allowed in your bins—again, check with your local waste management office (6)!
The final number is a catchall for a wide range of plastics that don’t fit in the previous six categories. For example, polycarbonate is a #7 plastic (believed to be a hormone disruptor) as well as PLA (polylactic acid), which is made from plants and is carbon neutral. Find these plastics in everything from sunglasses to computer cases, and check your city’s guidelines for specific instructions.
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To do our part, Thrive Market has implemented a variety of zero-waste and recycling programs in our headquarters and fulfillment centers. Our motto? “When in doubt, throw it out.” It seems counterintuitive when you’re eager to recycle, but our consultant explains how “items that can’t be recycled are seen as contaminants, and if too many contaminants are found in a recycle bin, the whole bin will be sent to trash. It’s better to have the one item end up in a landfill than a whole bin.” This philosophy can easily extend to your home as well. Do the best you can to educate yourself about what’s recyclable and what’s not, and toss the rest.
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