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Here’s the Hard Truth About Recycling

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Confused about what to recycle? You’re not alone.

U.S. recycling is a mishmash of local standards about what’s acceptable, what needs sorting, and whether you even need to rinse plastic clamshells, bottles, and other containers for them to be transformed into something new.

Just 5% of household plastic waste is actually recycled, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy. Other estimates put the total at closer to 10%. Either way, almost all of it winds up in landfills or incinerated for energy.

That doesn’t mean it’s futile. And it helps to know what’s most likely to be recycled and what just gums the machinery or gets tossed. Here’s a brief guide.

What the Numbers and Triangles Mean

In theory, any plastic with a number inside a triangle is recyclable. The numbers go from one to seven, and the lower the number, the more likely it is to be recycled.

Containers labeled “1” are PET plastic, used for things like beverage bottles and peanut-butter jars. A “2” is high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, used for items such as milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and freezer bags.

The recycling rate for PET bottles rose to 28.6% in 2021, after being in decline since 2017, according to recent data from the National Association of (PET) Container Resources, or Napcor. The most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency—from 2018—puts the figure for all No. 1 PET items at 18.5% and 8.9% for No. 2 HDPE.

Most cities only accept Nos. 1 and 2 items because they know those are the only plastics with factory capacity for recycling in the U.S., says Jan Dell, a chemical engineer and founder of the nonprofit Last Beach Cleanup. There are few or no factories that recycle other types of household plastic waste.  

From there, it gets murkier. Nos. 3, 4, 6, and 7 are far less commonly recycled. There’s “virtually no PVC plastic,” or No. 3,  left in the packaging stream, says Resa Dimino, a managing principal at Resource Recycling Systems.  Place No. 3s in a trash can—not your recycle bin.

No. 4 items, such as plastic bags, shrink-wrap, and mailing pouches, are usually not recycled through curbside programs, and less than 5% is actually recycled, according to data from the EPA. It’s best to put these items in the trash can. Try reusing your plastic shopping bags or simply take your own to the store.

Hardly anything with Nos. 6 and 7 is recycled. Examples of No. 6 plastic include takeout containers, hot-drink cups, and lids. No. 7 is a catchall for all other plastics, including bio-based food packaging, baby bottles, and multimaterial packaging.

In between is the No. 5 for polypropylene, or PP. That material is commonly used for yogurt cups, coffee pods, and ice-cream tubs—packaging that is softer than hard HDPE milk jugs. According to Greenpeace, less than 30% of Americans have access to recycling systems that accept No. 5 waste. PP packaging had a U.S. recycling rate of 2.7% in 2018, according to data from the EPA.

(ticker: NSRGY) takes Nespresso pods for reuse.
Keurig Dr Pepper
(KDP) says its pods can be recycled, though it doesn’t collect them.

The upshot is that plastics in a No. 1 or 2 triangle have the highest likelihood of being recycled, while everything else is unlikely without special arrangements.

A few things can help, experts say: rinse food containers so they have a higher chance of making it through. And keep caps on bottles.

And there’s always the low-tech solution: Just use less plastic. “The No. 1 thing that people should try to do is make less waste to begin with,” says Dell.

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