Admit it. You have found yourself, on at least one occasion, staring at a plastic bottle and wondering to yourself, “what do those recycling numbers mean?” We have all done it. It turns out the numbers make recycling plastics easier. They may not mean much to you and me, but they mean everything to recyclers.
Recycling numbers run from 1 to 7 here in the U.S. They are normally reserved for consumer products like plastic bottles and food packaging. However, Tennessee-based Seraphim Plastics says some commercial products are labeled with numbers as well. The numbers tell recyclers, at a glance, what type of plastic they are working with.
More Efficient Sorting
Plastic recycling numbers serve two primary purposes. Both are related to sorting. The first purpose is to tell consumers and businesses whether or not a particular plastic product is recyclable in their area. Again, this applies mainly to consumer products. Not all plastics are recyclable in all areas.
You might have a municipality in which only #1 and #7 plastics are recyclable. Why is that? Because those are the only types of plastics recyclers in that particular area accept. Without a recycler willing to accept the other five types, businesses and individuals have no other choice but to throw them away.
The second purpose served by the numbers is helping recyclers do what they do. Workers tasked with sorting plastics might be able to identify certain products without looking at the numbers, but the numbers are always there just in case there is any question. A number unequivocally identifies the type of plastic a product is made from. That way it can be correctly sorted.
What the Numbers Mean
Proper sorting is necessary to ensure that plastics can be recycled. It only takes a little bit of contamination to spoil an entire batch of recycled material, so plastics with different numbers cannot be mixed. Here is what each of the seven numbers means:
- #1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – Water bottles, juice containers, condiment containers, etc.
- #2 High density polyethylene (HDPE – Milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, traffic cones, trash cans, etc.
- #3 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – Garden hoses, shower curtains, plumbing fixtures, etc.
- #4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – Plastic bags, diaper liners, cellophane, etc.
- #5 Polypropylene (PP) – Pipes, tubes, medicine bottles, etc.
- #6 Polystyrene (PS) – Styrofoam cups, take-out food containers, consumer packaging, etc.
- #7 Other – Any and all plastics that do not fit in the first six categories
Some of these plastic types are more frequently recycled than others. For example, PET is one of the most commonly recycled plastics. LDPE and PP products are rarely recycled. It is not that they can’t be, it is just that there is not a strong market for them.
Residential vs. Commercial Recycling
Again, plastic recycling numbers usually pertain to household plastics. Those of us who do recycle at home generally put our recyclable materials into a curbside bin. Small businesses with limited plastics may do the same thing. But large companies generating an excessive amount of plastic waste will not put their plastics to the curb. Instead, they work with a commercial recycler like Seraphim Plastics.
Proper identification is just as important in the commercial realm. Most commercial recyclers only deal in certain kinds of plastic products. They do so based on market demand. In any case, they have to sort the plastics they acquire from their customers. Sorting ensures integrity and reduces the risks of contaminating recycled material.
Now you know why plastic materials have numbers on the bottom. Recycling numbers make sorting easier for both user and recycler.