Is It Recyclable? How to Find Out (and What Those Numbers Really Mean)

Last Update: March 21, 2024

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.

A Primer on Plastic

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.

What do the recycling numbers mean?

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.

Plastic Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE

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.

Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE

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.

Plastic Recycling Symbol #3: PVC or V

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.

Plastic Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE

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.

Plastic Recycling Symbols #5: PP

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.

Plastic Recycling Symbol #6: PS

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]!

Plastic Recycling Symbol #7: Miscellaneous

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.

How to Recycle Everything

Can computers be recycled? How about hangers or straws? Get all the answers to popular recycling FAQs here.

How to recycle plastic

A lot of items fall under the plastic umbrella, but here are some of the most popular products.

  • How to recycle plastic bottles: Keep America Beautiful recommends using curbside, school, work, or public space recycling bins. Also, some states have a deposit refund when you return containers to the store where you bought them.
  • Are plastic straws recyclable?: The nonprofit Green Coast shares that while plastic straws are technically recyclable based on their material makeup, straws are too small to collect and sort, which means they often end up in landfills. A better bet? Grab a reusable stainless steel set!
  • Are plastic hangers recyclable?: Unfortunately, plastic hangers aren’t always accepted by local recycling companies, so check with your city before putting them in your curbside pickup. To keep them out of landfills, you may be able to donate hangers to thrift stores, churches, or give them away through local swaps.
  • How to recycle plastic bags: Plastic bag recycling isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Sorting plastic bags requires special machines that not all regions have, so consult the tips for your community’s curbside collection. You can also check with your local grocery store to see if bags are collected for recycling.

How to recycle electronics

Lightening your tech load? Before you add a new laptop or television to your lineup, find out what to do with the old one.

  • How to recycle batteries: Each city has its own system for recycling batteries. Many have electronic waste days, so check with your area’s recycling department before tossing batteries into the trash [7].
  • How to recycle TV: The same policy applies to TVs—you may need to wait for a citywide electronics collection to get rid of it. In the meantime, you can also look for donation opportunities, sell it online, or give it away to someone who can benefit [8].
  • How to recycle CDs and DVDs: Curbside recycling isn’t the place to dispose of CDs and DVDs. Instead, consider donating or selling a collection you’ve amassed.
  • How to recycle computers: After wiping your computer of old files, check with your city for dates of electronic recycling days [9]. You might also have the option to sell an old computer back to the manufacturer or store where you originally purchased it for a credit towards something new. In partnership with Goodwill, Dell Reconnect accepts any brand of computer (plus drives and chords).
  • How to recycle old cell phones: For old cell phones, check with your service provider, which might have a buy-back program in place [10].

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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Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, author, and tea enthusiast.

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