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Recycling Codes for Plastics and What They Mean

Our children are the first generation to grow up in an environment where recycling is common practice. This scale of recycling was not around when we were kids, and what little presence existed, well, it was not visible like it is today. The blue and green recycling bins did not take their places at the end of neighbor’s driveways until 15 years ago.

Recycling behaviors expanded in the early 90s thanks to international collaboration at the end of the previous decade. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) developed a universal code for plastic types to facilitate consumer recycling. That code assists with product segregation, ensuring that similar plastics are processed together.

SPI Resin Identification Codes

RIC divides plastics into seven groups. Each is outlined in the printable guide to plastic recycling codes and is explained in full below.

  1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) is a flexible, lightweight resin commonly used for beverage bottles, especially carbonated products. PETE is the easiest of the seven categories to recycle.
  2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is used in sturdy containers, like milk jugs, shampoo bottles and liquid laundry detergent.
  3. Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is a cheaper alternative for iron in construction and rubber in consumer products. Common uses include pipes, flexible packaging and waterproof clothing.
  4. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a commonly used and resilient resin used for shopping bags, beverage cups, six pack rings and computer components.
  5. Polypropylene (PP) is a tough but flexible polymer used in bottle caps, laboratory equipment and medicine bottles. It is also used in a variety of non-woven clothing, and is a primary ingredient in diapers and sanitary products.
  6. Polystyrene (PS) is most commonly known as styrofoam, which is used in hot beverage cups and egg cartons. PS does not decompose so an emphasis has been placed on recycling it in recent years.
  7. Other is a catch-all for other plastics that includes combinations of the previous six. Some common uses are 5-gallon water jugs, car parts and compact discs.

Recycling's Alternative

Although many people believe otherwise, there is no logic or meaning behind the order. PETE, located in the first position, is the most common consumer plastic and is easy to recycle, but PVC, in the third spot, is extremely difficult to process because it is so dense and rigid.

Decomposition times also vary and are not in any particular order. Unlike newspapers, which take two to four weeks to deteriorate, plastics have a longer shelf life. When not recycled, PETE bottles can take 450 years to decompose. That’s staggering! But compare it to a grocery bag that takes 1,000 years or a styrofoam cup that may never fully dissolve.

Hopefully those facts will provide incentive to recycle plastics. The printable SPI guide can be taped to the lid of your trash can as a reminder or above your recycling bin as a reference. Together, we can make sure that the next 15 years will be as productive for the recycling movement as the last 15.

For a printable version of our Recycling Codes, click here.