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Don’t Rely on Recycling Numbers on Plastics

Updated: Dec 9, 2019

I’m certain you’ve all seen them before: the little numbers imprinted onto the bottom of plastic containers. They feature a number one through seven, in a variety of sizes, with a chasing arrows triangle surrounding the number.

One of the most frequently asked questions we get at Brown County Resource Recovery is, “What does each number mean? Which numbers mean the item is recyclable?” Unfortunately, the numbers aren’t a clear indication of whether the item is recyclable or not.

The numbers classify types of plastic

Then what’s the point of having them? This numerical assignment is called a resin identification code, an indicator of what kind of plastic the object is made out of. This is a way for manufacturers to classify plastics to help recycling plants know how to process the materials. But the presence of a recycling number doesn’t necessarily mean that plastic is recyclable. Many of the plastic types aren’t recyclable anywhere. Also, recycling capabilities vary from community to community so while a certain type of plastic may be recyclable in one community, it may not be in another.

The system is changing

The good news is that the system is already changing to a much more user-friendly version. A new, more easily understandable labelling system called How2Recycle has been developed to support industry efforts to better educate the public on recycling. These labels spell out if an item can or cannot be recycled, when to check with your local recycler, and when to take the item to a retail drop-off location.

For example, if an item’s label states “Check Locally,” it may be recyclable in some communities but not in others. If the label says “Store Drop-off,” then typically it would be referring to items like plastic bags or wraps that can be recycled after being taken to a retail drop-off location.

The label also explains how to prep the item for recycling. So, the label might include the words “Rinse & Insert Lid,” which would mean rinse your container out, and then stick the lid back inside the container before recycling. The label could also include the type of material the packaging is made from, such as paper or plastic.

This system would not remove the original numbers from plastic objects, but it can really help clarify recycling instructions to the general public. Many companies have already signed up to use this new labeling system, including P&G, Johnson and Johnson, General Mills and Unilever.

When it doubt, throw it out

For items that aren’t using this new labelling system, you still shouldn’t worry about trying to figure out the recycling numbers on plastic. As we like to say, “When in doubt, throw it out.” Hoping that a plastic is recyclable doesn’t mean that it will get recycled, in fact, it increases costs to have that item removed from the recyclables.

The best thing you can do is to look to your local community’s resources. If you’re a resident of Brown County, you can visit the Brown County Resource Recovery website: Once there, click on “What Do I Do With?” for a list of recycling instructions for various items. Wondering about an item that’s not on the list? Give us a call at (920) 492-4950.

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