Do You Know Which Plastic Packaging Items Aren’t Recyclable?

By Natalie Montanaro

The facts are undeniable: plastic waste and its effects on the environment have reached phenomenal proportions. The world’s oceans have been inundated with non-recyclable plastics that choke and kill sea life; plastic production utilizes nearly four percent of the world’s oil resources; the residue chemical of Bisphenol (BPA) from the manufacture of plastics is a biohazard; and over 2.5 trillion plastic bags are produced in one year alone worldwide.

The negatives associated with plastic consumption are obvious and plentiful. So what can you do to reduce the assault of plastics on the environment? One way is to simply use less plastic. Replace those take-away styrofoam containers with reusable, washable ones. Plastic bags, which are the most prevalent of culprits, can be replaced with multi-use cloth bags. Use a water bottle and avoid single-serving bottled drinks. There is plastic waste just about everywhere and, sadly, some of it is not recyclable.


There are seven recognized categories of manufactured plastic. Their products are marked with a triangular arrow symbol that contain a resin identification code (RIC) number. They are:

PET-No. 1 (also PETE-1). Polyethylene terephthalate is most commonly used in plastic bottles for water, soft drinks, juices, and cooking oils. The products made from this plastic can be recycled but should not be reused due to degradation of their composition, which contains carcinogens.

HDPENo. 2 High-density polyethylene is durable and therefore used for cleaning products, cosmetic items, and milk jugs. It can be reused and recycled.

PVCNo. 3 Polyvinyl chloride has a number of dangerous toxins. Dubbed ‘the poison plastic’, it is used in home and garden construction, computer cables, pet’s and children’s toys, and many packaging materials. It should never be reused and is not recyclable. Polyvinyl chloride materials can be repurposed, however, as with piping refashioned materials into playground mazes, for example.

LDPE-No. 4 Low-density polyethylene products are reusable, can be repurposed, and are somewhat recyclable. Among them are those ubiquitous plastic grocery bags. Products made with LDPE plastic can be turned into trash can liners or even plastic furniture, for example. Unfortunately however, many communities do not yet have facilities to recycle this type of plastic.

PPNo. 5 Polypropylene is safer than most plastics and can be reused. It is heat and moisture resistant in addition to being resistant to chemicals. Cereal and snack bags, cleaning pails, storage bins, yogurt and ice cream containers, are some of the many products made from polypropylene. Some, but not all, communities recycle this type of plastic.  

PSNo. 6 Polystyrene is the ‘peanuts’ in packing material and most takeaway food containers and coffee cups. It is toxic when heated in the microwave and is not recommended for reuse. Because it is fragile, it breaks up easily in landfills and waterways, leaving tiny particles of waste that wildlife can ingest and become sickened by. It is one of those plastics that is better not to use at all.

Other-No. 7 Polycarbonate, LEXAN and BPA is the catch-all category for other plastics. These plastics are used to make everything from baby bottles to auto parts. These items generally cannot be reused and are minimally recyclable.

Part of the Other-No. 7 category (and making things confusing for the consumer), is Polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA), a polyester that is completely recyclable. It is a bioplastic formed from renewable resources such as corn starch, sugar cane, or cassava roots. It is used in recyclable packaging, cups, shrink wrap, disposable tableware, and even clothing.

So what do we gather from the above list? If at all possible, avoid using products from numbers 3, 4, and 6. Others to avoid are number 7, unless it is marked PLA, in which case it is compostable; and 5, which is not always possible to recycle due to a lack of facilities. Numbers 1 and 2 above are recyclable. But no matter what the type of plastic is, by limiting your daily use of any of these materials and spreading the word about their impact, the environment will suffer less.