Multiple colors of plastic straws.

An Overview of the Different Types of Plastic

Do recycling arrows and numbers on a plastic container mean it’s recyclable?


Don’t feel bad, most people think that the recycling symbol on plastic means it is recyclable but this is not the case. This symbol is actually a resin identification code. Its purpose is to indicate the type(s) of plastic used to manufacture the item, not that it is necessarily recyclable.

Types of Plastic

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

  • Usually clear in color.
  • One of the most common plastics produced and the most widely recycled.
  • Examples: water, soda, and condiment bottles; polyester clothing.

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

  • HDPE is stronger than PET, usually opaque.
  • The most prevalent plastic in the world and widely accepted for recycling.
  • Examples: milk & laundry detergent jugs, shampoo bottles, toys, buckets, pipes & building materials.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)

  • PVC is the most dangerous plastic to our health. Lead is often added as a stabilizer, and PVC also often contains other harmful chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA). We are exposed to these chemicals by eating and drinking things that have come into contact with these plastics, and we can also breathe in particles in the air.
  • PVC is also known to emit or leach VOCs and dangerous toxins throughout its entire lifecycle, most notably lead, mercury, cadmium, dioxins (a chemical in Agent Orange), and vinyl chloride (a carcinogen).
  • Another reason PVC should be avoided because it is very difficult to recycle. 
  • Examples: pipes, water bottles, baby bottles, pacifiers, food containers, yoga mats, exercise balls, credit cards, toys, shower curtains, artificial Christmas trees, flooring, wall coverings, vinyl siding and other building materials.
  • Read more on the dangers of PVC.

Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

  • LDPE is essentially a lighter, more flexible, and transparent version of HDPE. This (and some HDPE) can also be referred to as plastic film.
  • Examples: plastic/cling wrap, sandwich and bread bags, bubble wrap, dry cleaning bags, produce bags, six pack rings.

Polypropylene (PP)

  • Strong plastic with high heat resistance.
  • Not an commonly recycled plastic. According to Greenpeace, only 30% of Americans have access to recyclers that accept it.
  • Examples: Yogurt containers, deodorant containers, shampoo bottles, straws, prescription bottles, soda bottle caps, cereal box liners, hot food containers, packaging tape, disposable diapers, plant pots.

Polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam)

  • Polystyrene rivals PVC for the worst type of plastic. Because of it’s low density, it is easily carried in the wind and floats on water. Animals do not recognize it as artificial and commonly mistake it for food and ingest it, often leading to death. In addition, styrene (a neurotoxin and probable carcinogen, according to the WHO), can easily be absorbed by food and ingested by humans. Read more about styrene.
  • Polystyrene is extremely difficult to recycle.
  • Examples: Takeout containers, foam cups, meat trays, egg cartons, packaging material. Added to other numerous other materials to create things like appliances, electronics, automobile parts, & toys.


  • This is the catch-all category for plastics that don’t fit neatly into the other categories. This is usually because these products are a mix of multiple types of plastics. This makes them especially difficult to recycle, although some specialty recyclers can do so.
  • Some common plastics that falls under this category are:
    • Polycarbonate (CDs, eyeglasses)
    • Nylon (clothing, rope)
    • Melamine (food containers and dishes)
    • Acrylic (aquariums, fake nails, furniture)
    • ABS, aka Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (Legos, small household appliances, computer keyboards)


  • Bioplastics PLA (polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) make up only 1% of plastics. Instead of being made from fossil fuels, bioplastic is made from plant material, such as sugar cane or corn/potato starch. Biodegradability is its primary asset.
    • Bioplastics are technically compostable, however most of the time this process must be done in a commercial composting facility that achieves higher temperatures than simple backyard composting. These types of facilities are rare.
    • While the idea of bioplastics seems promising, their production is expensive and not a clear cut solution. They do result in less greenhouse gases than conventional plastic, but the tradeoff is increased pollutants from fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow the crops, as well as extensive water and land use.
    • Despite being made with plant material, chemicals are still added during production. A 2020 study found that bioplastics are just as toxic as conventional plastics.
    • Bioplastics cannot be recycled with other plastic. In the landfill, they degrade slowly and release methane just as any other food waste does. But unlike food or yard waste, they don’t add any nutrients to soil or compost.
    • Read more about bioplastics and also check out the video below.

Learn how to recycle plastic items, as well as how to reduce your plastic consumption here.

So what plastic numbers are recyclable?

Technically all plastics are recyclable, but availability depends largely on cost, as well as supply and demand. These materials are a commodity, and like any commodity, they rely on supply and demand. If there’s no one to buy a certain plastic, agencies won’t collect it. And the supply depends on us: since only about 9% of plastic is recycled in the U.S., certain types of plastic are difficult for recyclers to find.

The best practice is to check with your local recycling service to see which plastic resins they accept. It is safe to say that #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) are universally recycled everywhere. #4 (LDPE) and #5 (PP) are the second most likely to be recycled, and #3 (PVC), #6 (PS) and #7 (other) are rarely recycled because they are difficult or impossible. They may be collected but most likely will meet an incinerator rather than a recycling plant. But again, the fates of these plastics largely vary between municipalities and recycling companies.

You may be wondering if it’s worth it to collect plastic for recycling…after all, how much is plastic actually recycled? It’s a fair question, given all the complexities of the system. I think that yes, it is worth collecting, especially #1 and #2, because if actually collected, there is enough demand.

But recycling is not the real solution here: plastic production continues to increase while plastic recycling rates stay very low. Recycling cannot keep up with all the plastic use, even if everyone actually participated. So what is the real solution? Minimizing plastic use in every way possible. Learn how to do that here.

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