The Meaning of the Numbers Inside the Recycling Symbol
By: Chad Upton | Editor
I remember going to the grocery store as a small child. It seemed like we were there for hours before finally packing all of our purchases into large brown paper bags. A few years later they phased out paper bags over concern for the trees required to make the bags. They were replaced with plastic bags and we have used them almost ever since. But, A few years ago, paper bags started appearing once again. Although they’re made from trees, those are pretty easy to grow compared to the raw materials of plastic.
It seems like everything is made from plastic now. I did a bit of dumpster diving tonight to find out how much. I went through my recycling bin looking for things with the recycling symbol on them — I guess that probably doesn’t really count as “dumpster diving.” These numbers only appear inside the recycling symbol on plastic products.
Plastic is a petroleum product, meaning the raw material used to create plastic is oil. It’s no secret that oil is one of the most in-demand natural resources and for a variety of reasons oil prices have sharply increased over the past 10 years. It’s not just the fuel companies who are affected by the increasing price of oil, but also plastic manufacturers. Both of these groups have to pass those increased costs on to their customers, and those businesses pass it on to their customers. Somewhere down the line, that customer is you and you’ve obviously noticed at the gas pump.
But, you may not have noticed the increase on plastic prices, at least not directly. Depending on where you live, you may have noticed a big or small push for you to use (or buy) reusable grocery bags. Of course these are great for the environment, but they also save the grocery store a lot of money on plastic bags, which have become significantly more expensive in the past few years. In some places, you even have to pay extra if you want plastic bags.
Oil is a non-renewable resource, once we run out that’s it — we’re out. Experts say we are getting closer and closer to the end of the crude supply and some of our oil now comes from alternative oil supplies, which are more costly and more time consuming to extract and refine.
Therefore, it is extremely important to recycle plastic. It costs money to recycle, but it helps reduce the price of plastic by minimizing the demand for and price of oil. Additionally, plastic is not something we want in our landfills since it does not decompose the way many other things do.
Plastic is very versatile, it can be made into a fabric like material for nylon windbreakers or grocery bags. It can also be a very hard material for outdoor furniture and decking, not to mention the products that fall between these soft and hard extremes. This diversity comes from the variety of plastic polymers that have been developed with these different properties.
The number inside the recycling symbol indicates the type of plastic polymer the item is made from. Because it is so important to recycle plastic, you’ll find this symbol and number on almost everything made out of plastic. The manufacturers want you to recycle because it helps them keep their costs down and our landfills clear of plastic.
Most of the time, you’ll also see an acronym below the symbol that matches the number. The cool thing is, in addition to the type of plastic, it will actually indicate if it is made from recycled plastic. You’ll see in this table, the plastic numbers and their corresponding names and acronyms. If these acronyms are preceded by the letter “P”, that indicates it is made from recycled plastic of that type.
|1||PETE or PET||Polyethylene terephthalate|
|2||HDPE||High density polyethylene|
|3||PVC or V||Polyvinyl chloride|
|4||LDPE||Low density polyethylene|
|7||OTHER or O||Acrylic, Fiberglass, Nylon…etc|
From my dumpster session I noticed that all of the food containers were either PETE or PP and some other household products were HDPE.
Not everyone recycles, which is unfortunate. Most cities have a recycling program, even if you have to collect your things and drop them off at a nearby depot. Check with your city, they usually indicate which types of plastic they will recycle (many places only take 1 and 2).
Even if you don’t care about the planet, hopefully you care about your wallet. Please recycle as much as possible.