Plastics 1-7: What you need to know about the world’s most confusing recyclable
Photo by Zuzanna Szczepanska on Unsplash
Grab any plastic container and it’s likely you’ll find a symbol stamped in the bottom with three arrows chasing each other, forming a triangle. Inside that triangle is a number, usually 1-7. But what do these numbers mean?
Plastics are artificial materials made from natural resources that we extract from the planet, like natural gas and oil. These resources are refined into chemical compounds like ethane and propane and later converted into monomers—molecules that can bond to other identical molecules to form polymers—which are then used to create the plastic products that most of us use every day.
What makes plastic types 1-7 different from each other is their chemical complexity. The higher the number, the more complicated the chemical composition of the plastic. For that reason, a plastic with a higher number also means it’s often harder to recycle.
Ashley Krug is the Market Development Coordinator with the City of Springfield Environmental Services. Some of her central tasks since coming to the City in 2014 have included education and outreach, social marketing and food waste diversion.
A lot of people think: “If something’s made of plastic, then it’s recyclable,” but Krug says nothing could be further from the truth.
Springfield has been working over the last several months to push forward with updated rules at area recycling drop-off locations within city limits and with curbside pickup services to reflect changes coming to accepted plastics. The new policy will allow only plastics 1, 2 and 5. All other plastic types are trash.
Until recently, recyclers allowed Springfield residents to recycle plastics 1-7 with a few exceptions, Krug said. But in light of the current plastic marketability with current processors, the City decided it was time to update regulations.
“Plastics 1, 2 and 5 are really the only plastic streams locally that (processors are) able to easily put on the market,” Krug explained.
Understanding plastic types and whether or not they’re recyclable is an important piece to the recycling puzzle. Proper sorting will help ensure the materials will actually get recycled.
Plastic 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common type of plastic and has the least complicated chemical composition. It’s generally easier than higher numbers on this list and is accepted in most curbside bins and collection centers nationwide. Most beverage bottles, salad dressing bottles and cooking oil bottles are type 1.
Plastic 2 (high-density polyethylene), as its name suggests, is similar to plastic type 1 but has a higher density. Also like plastic 1, type 2 is highly recyclable.
High recyclability has two components, Krug said:
We say a plastic is highly recyclable when it has a high resale value on the recycling market. In other words, if recyclers can sell the material to processors to make new products that consumers want, then its recyclability increases.
We also say something is highly recyclable when it is easier to break down and turn into something new. Remember, plastics with increasingly complicated chemical makeups are also increasingly difficult to recycle.
Most milk jugs, shampoo and conditioner bottles, yogurt containers and liquid laundry detergent jugs are type 2.
Plastic 3 (polyvinyl chloride or PVC) is often difficult to recycle. Many liquid cleaner bottles, medical equipment and food wraps are type 3. If you have empty liquid cleaner bottles, the best thing you can do is find ways to reuse them before you toss them in the trash. If you have full or partially full containers, you can schedule a drop-off at the Household Chemical Collection Center near Chestnut and Kansas Expressways in Springfield.
Plastic 4 (low-density polyethylene) is a more flexible version of type 1 because it is less dense. It’s often used to create products like squeeze bottles, bubble wrap and trash bags. It’s rare for this type to be recycled, and area recycling centers like Lone Pine or Franklin Avenue can’t accept them.
If you have a stash of plastic shopping bags in your home, OHRD recommends reusing them — as trash bags, grocery bags, for packing etc. — or dropping them off the recycling bins at the Walmart Supercenters on Independence, Kearney, or north Kansas Expressway.
Plastic 5 (polypropylene) is durable and more heat resistant than other kinds of plastic. Bottle caps, DVD boxes and hot food containers are usually made of plastic 5. Ozarks recyclers accept type 5 in curbside and at drop-off locations.
Plastic 6 (polystyrene) or Styrofoam, is common in food packaging and construction. Examples include clamshell take-out containers and Styrofoam soft drink cups from convenience stores. Plastic 6 isn’t recyclable in our region.
Plastic 7 (miscellaneous) is an umbrella category for all other kinds of plastics that don’t fit into the six above categories. A silicone spatula, children’s toy, baby bottle, or automotive part might be labeled type 7. These are among the most difficult to recycle because they aren’t all just one kind of plastic even though they’re categorized together.
This is all so complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier if I don’t recycle at all?
We get it: Recycling can be confusing at first! Even though recycling isn’t as easy as it could be, there are still plenty of reasons to do it.
Krug advises residents to be thoughtful about what they buy, and she is quick to remind others that plastic can do a lot of good, too.
We don’t need to demonize plastic, she said. Plastics are part of everyday life and have tons of important uses—from housing and medicine to sanitation and transportation. It’s a total necessity in some cases—like liquid IV bags at a hospital.
Krug said she wants Ozarks residents to be intentional about the plastic they use.
“Out of every material we recycle, plastic is the only one that doesn’t go away,” Krug said, explaining that plastics don’t have a decomposition rate. Plastics only break down into smaller plastics.
And Ozarks residents throw a lot of plastic away.
In 2016-17, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources conducted a study of the contents of trash trucks coming to the Noble Hill Sanitary Landfill to catalog the materials the municipality tossed into its trashcans. Plastics were the third most common item found—an estimated 11.4% of the total weight.
The composition study, which cataloged the contents of trash trucks coming from residents and businesses in Springfield, found paper and cardboard were the most common items, at 26.4% of the total, followed by food, at 12.1% of the total.
The amount of stuff going in our landfill is going up, too. Krug said when she started at the City eight years ago, Noble Hill saw around 650 tons of trash every day. Now the number has more than doubled.
Comparing 2016 estimates to today’s tonnage, our best guess is between 275,000 and 450,000 pounds of plastics are landfilled at Springfield’s landfill every single day.
The bottom line is this: The Ozarks’ population is increasing, and paired with massive amounts of recyclable materials trashed daily, it means we’re going to run out of landfill space quickly.
Ever since Noble Hill opened in 1975, it’s had a predetermined lifespan. And it’s in Ozarks residents’ best interests to keep the landfill open for the entirety of that lifespan. Krug said with recent expansion approvals, we can expect Noble Hill to be filled up in around 50–75 years. Krug said she worries that, with recent quantities of trash increasing, the lifespan of the landfill will be much shorter than anticipated.
If Noble Hill reaches capacity too soon, residents can expect to pay much more for hauling services because the next nearest landfill is around 100 miles away.
Part of the strategy to make Noble Hill last its full lifetime, and therefore keep costs down, is to recycle plastics through curbside or drop-off locations.
What else should I know before I start recycling plastics at home?
Always rinse out plastic food/beverage containers to remove residual crumbs, sauces, etc.
Recyclers can’t take large, obtrusive plastics like buckets or laundry baskets.
Recyclers in our neck of the woods — and most recyclers across the country — can’t recycle black plastics.
If you’re not sure if an item is recyclable, try the City’s Waste Wizard.
About the Author
Diana Dudenhoeffer is a multimedia journalist from Springfield, Missouri. She studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling at Missouri State University. She is the current media intern at OHRD, writing blogposts like this one.