What The Numbers on Plastics Really Mean

What The Numbers on Plastics Really Mean
What The Numbers on Plastics Really Mean

Have you ever wondered what the numbers inside the chasing arrows symbols on rigid plastic packaging mean? You might’ve heard that they indicate that something is recyclable, and that items that don’t have that symbol aren’t recyclable. Neither of these common perceptions is quite true.

Numbers on plastics actually serve to identify the type of plastic resin from which an item is made. These numbers, invented in the late 1980s and called Resin Identification Codes (RICs), helped manufacturers establish consistency in the materials used for their packaging and still serve today to keep the processing of recycled plastics as pure as possible, resulting in the highest possible quality of items made from recycled materials. The codes were always intended to help the manufacturers determine types of plastic rather than to serve as an indicator to citizens of recyclability, as people have come to think of them.

The fact that RICs have for years been surrounded by the classic recycling symbol is misleading—and the plastics industry acknowledges that. In fact, in 2013 the American Society for Testing and Material International announced revisions to the rules so that RICs would stop being associated with recyclability. New packaging will have the chasing arrows replaced by a solid triangle in an effort to minimize confusion with recycling while allowing the numbers to continue serving their purpose of resin identification and quality control.

So, what are the different plastic resins and how are they recycled? Resin Identification Codes stand for six specific types of plastic, and the seventh number stands for all other types of plastic. The following table from Learner.org briefly explains what each code means and provides examples of items made from that type of resin and examples of what those items are made into when they are recycled.*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many people see the presence or absence of a RIC as an indicator of a whether or not an item can be recycled, but as we’ve learned, it isn’t as simple as that. It’s important to know what’s accepted by your local recycling program and where you can take things that are not accepted. According to Gwinnett County Government, the following types of rigid plastic are accepted in our curbside recycling stream:

RIC # Accepted Items

1

Soda and water bottles

2

Milk jugs, juice bottles, butter and yogurt tubs

3

Detergent and household cleaner containers, shampoo, and cooking oil bottles

4

Only squeezable bottles

5

Syrup, ketchup, and medicine bottles, straws, and some yogurt containers

6

Disposable plates and cups, aspirin bottles, CD cases

7

Three and five-gallon water bottles, certain food containers


Note that some items on the list, like straws and CD cases, probably won’t have a visible RIC at all.  If an item doesn’t have a Resin Identification Code on it, don’t assume that it isn’t recyclable. RICs are only required on rigid plastic, like cups, bottles, and containers—not on plastic bags and stretchy plastic film (both of which are
recyclable at local stores) or on other recyclable material, like paper, glass, or metal. Furthermore, they’re not required on rigid plastic packaging in all states (just 39).

The numbers on rigid plastic are often more confusing than they are a helpful guide. That’s why we structured our recycling directory around items themselves, rather than the materials (or type of plastic) they’re made out of. When you’re unsure whether something is recyclable, refer to the table above, to our directory, and to the How2Recycle labels increasingly found on materials of all kinds.

*For a far more detailed look at the resin types, their properties, and what they’re recycled into, check out this guide from the American Chemistry Council. Or watch the video below!

Sources:
How2Recycle
Plastics Industry Trade Association

Photo courtesy of How2Recycle

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