Which plastics do and don’t belong in your recycling bin?

By Bianca Barr Tunno, AccuWeather staff writer

The recycling bin is often a catch-all for items you know will be taken in the curbside pickup, then you toss in something you think might be acceptable. Experts say if you want to recycle household plastics correctly and efficiently, conduct a little research first to become familiar with what your local recycling program can actually process.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) estimates at least 5 million tons of post-industrial and post-consumer plastics were recycled in the United States in 2016.

“Recycling saves energy and helps preserve the environment,” said Mark Carpenter, assistant vice president of communications, media and marketing for ISRI. “The one thing we stress is to make sure you are recycling right. Check to make sure what is recycled and what is not in your community.”


Recycle this

While there are always exceptions, plastics with resin identification codes #1 PET (polyethelene terephthalate) and #2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) are common forms of plastic and will likely be accepted in a curbside collection program. This includes water and cola bottles, laundry detergent bottles and milk jugs, among others.

Don't recycle that

The following plastics are rarely, if ever, recycled in curbside pickup:

· Softer plastics with resin identification code #3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
· Takeout containers, to-go cups, plastic utensils and “Styrofoam” with code #6 PS (polystyrene)
· Other plastics, such as BPA or polycarbonate, with the code #7 OTHER

“Never put any items that have been contaminated with human fluids such as an IV drip tube or items made out of PVC, such as plastic pipe,” Carpenter said. “Garden hoses, plastic rope, twine and other ‘tanglers’ should also never be placed in a recycle bin.”


Wish-cycling, the act of putting something in the recycling bin with the hope that it is recyclable when unsure, can actually cause more harm than good, according to ISRI experts.

After unrecyclable items arrive at recycling centers, they can cause costly damage to the equipment, according to a fact sheet from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. This also can create additional work – more sorting and sending to landfills – which raises costs.

So if you have questions about chip and cereal bags, food containers or toys, for example, it’s best to ask your local recycling facility. And keep in mind: items smaller than 2 inches are often not recyclable because the machinery used to sort the materials can’t capture items that small (like lip balm tubes, for example) even if the plastic is technically recyclable, Carpenter told AccuWeather.

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A plan for plastic bags

Plastic bags, with resin identification code #4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene), are often not accepted at curbside pickup but can be brought to supermarkets or big box stores.

“Residential recycling programs typically use a series of conveyors, belts and other equipment in which plastic bags can get tangled. The bags can jam the gears and belts, breaking the equipment,” Carpenter said. “Stores that collect plastic bags can send them directly to recyclers who have equipment designed to handle that material.”

Tips of the trade

If a plastic is not accepted by a local curbside recycling program, it does not mean it is not recyclable. Many communities have collection points or special events for such materials. There are also resources, such as Earth911, where you can look up local collectors that recycle various materials, and TerraCycle, which offers recycling programs, funded by companies, for hard-to-recycle waste.

“It is important for people not to think of their recycling bin as a substitute for their trash bin,” said Carpenter. “Recycling can bring many benefits to the economy and environment, but we need the public to view it as a public duty and take care with what they put in the recycling bin.”

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