Plastics 101

Oil and natural gas are the major raw materials used to manufacture most plastics. Plastic is an extremely useful material that has high recycling potential if properly collected and sorted. 

Why is recycling plastics important?

Recycling plastic conserves natural resources. When plastic products are made from recycled plastic instead of virgin materials, it reduces energy usage and pollution. The U.S. EPA estimates that recycling one ton of plastic milk jugs saves enough energy to light a home for a year.

What items can made from recycled plastic?

Recycled plastic can be made into a number of items including:

  • Ski jackets
  • Plastic bottles
  • Carpet
  • Fleece jackets
  • Plastic lumber

What do the numbers mean?

The number surrounded by a triangle of arrows identifies the specific resin type of the plastic. Some communities use the resin codes to determine the recyclability of plastics, but in most Oregon communities we do not use the resin codes. Recyclability is generally based on the shape of the plastic item. 

Seven different plastic resin codes are assigned to different resin types. Plastics 1-6 all have a specific resin type. Plastic code 7 is the catch-all for all other plastics that are not plastics type 1-6. 

Plastics 1, 2, 4, and 5 are most commonly recycled because they have strong markets and numerous uses in manufacturing new products. The plastic shapes that are accepted for recycling are generally made from these resin types. These plastics can be made into new plastic containers, carpets, plastic lumber, clothing, recycling bins, and hundreds of other items. 

Most plastic resin types have the potential to be recycled, but many plastic types cannot be recycled locally due to sorting challenges, lack of strong markets, or limited use.

What plastics can I recycle?

Depending on the city or county you live in, different types of plastics are accepted for recycling. Check with your hauler or local government to see which types of plastics are accepted in your local recycling program.

Some plastics are not recyclable curbside, but may be recycled at recycling depots. 

Why can’t I recycle all plastics?

The ability for a product to be recycled depends on a number of factors, including:

  • The type of plastic that an item is made of. Some types of plastic can be melted and made into new products, while other types of plastic (thermoset plastics) cannot be melted more than once. These types of plastic cannot be molded into new products, making them unrecyclable.  
  • The material’s ability to be sorted. What goes into the mixed recycling must be able to pulled out of the mixed recycling and sorted properly. Certain materials like plastic bags or plastic lids are difficult to sort from other materials. These items can jam the sorting equipment or end up in the wrong material stream. 
  • Recycling markets. The reason we place item into a recycling bin is to make new products with that material. If there are not manufactures who want to make new products out of it, then it cannot be recycled. 

How can I support plastic recycling?

  • Learn which plastics can be recycled in your community. Follow these guidelines to ensure that you are helping to create a clean recycling stream.
  • Recycle your plastic, both at the curb and at recycling depots.
  • Purchase products made with recycled content. This helps to ensure strong markets for products made with recycled content. 

How do degradable additives affect recycling?

Testing by members of the Association of Post Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) shows that these plastics are not recyclable. APR’s policy states “they’re a contaminant in the recycling stream. Claims of recyclability are unfounded, untested, and possibly misleading as outlined in the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guide.”

The principal concern is that a recycled resin containing degradable additives renders any ensuing recycled product, such as a bottle, pipe, or carpet, unsellable because the product has reduced quality and shortened service life. This concern includes issues of product liability.

For more information, see AOR’s Policy on Degradable Additives in Plastics.

Further Reading

Plastics 101, American Chemistry Council 

Compostable Plastics 101, U.S. Compost Council 

Plastics Film Recycling, American Chemistry Council 

Plastics Markets: Connecting Recycling Plastics Buyers and Suppliers, More Recycling

Resource Recycling, Plastics Recycling Update Magazine

Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers