Your Guide to Plastic Numbers: What They Mean and How Green They Are

We’ve all seen the numbers and recycling symbols at the bottom of our plastic containers and bottles, but what do they mean? Below you will find a quick and comprehensible guide to plastic numbers and their meaning.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a world full of plastic; we eat and drink from plastic, and we surround ourselves with it in all of our daily activities. Ideally, we should limit the use of all plastics, but some are indeed safer than others – safer for you and the environment. So it’s time to learn about the various plastics that enter and exit your home.

Recycling Symbols & Plastic Numbers

First, anything that’s made of plastic features a recycling symbol. Easy to spot, the symbol is represented by a number (1 to 7) enclosed in the universal recycling triangle. Even though we often ignore them, these symbols are actually a fountain of information. They tell us the toxic content of said plastic, how likely it is to leach, its level of biodegradability, and ultimately the safety of the plastic. Let’s get started.

Plastic #1 – PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

Plastic #1 is commonly clear and found mostly in soda and water bottles. Accepted by most curbside recycling programs, it is considered somewhat safe. However, this plastic allows bacteria to accumulate, which is why you should be careful with repeated uses.

Plastic #1 is found mostly in water bottles, soda bottles, beer bottles, mouthwash bottles, salad dressing containers, and peanut butter containers. Once recycled, it can be used to make tote bags, carpet, furniture, polar fleece, paneling, and fiber.

Plastic #2 – HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)


Usually opaque, plastic #2 is also accepted by a great majority of curbside recycling initiatives. It counts among the three plastics unanimously considered to be safe, and it has a significantly lower risk of leaching.

Plastic #2 is used to make juice bottles, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, household cleaner containers, motor oil bottles, detergent bottles, butter tubs, and toiletries bottles. Once recycled, this type of plastic becomes recycling containers, pens, picnic tables, benches, fencing, lumber, and detergent bottles, among other items.

Plastic #3 – V or PVC (Vinyl)

Rarely picked up by curbside recycling programs, plastic #3 is a health threat due to the phthalates it may contain. It can cause a number of severe health issues, including miscarriages and developmental problems.

It is commonly used to make detergent bottles, food wrap, medical equipment, windows, and plumbing pipes. Vinyl plastics also contain DEHA, which has been linked to liver problems and loss of bone mass. With long-term exposure, DEHA can also be carcinogenic. The FDA strongly urges the public not to cook with or burn this plastic.

Plastic #3 is recycled into flooring, paneling, decks, speed bumps, and roadway gutters.

Plastic #4 – LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene)

Even though most curbside recycling programs have systematically refused to pick up this plastic, more and more are reviewing their stance on plastic #4. Low density polyethylene is used to make shopping bags, squeezable bottles, frozen food, bread bags, clothing, carpet, and food wraps. Plastic #4 is the second one among the plastic numbers considered to be safe. Recycled plastic #4 is the main material for making paneling, compost bins, floor tiles, trash can liners and cans, and shipping envelopes.

Plastic #5 – PP (Polypropylene)

Curbside recycle initiatives are increasingly accepting plastic #5, which is also one of the safest plastics to use. Typically found in syrup bottles, yogurt containers, medicine bottles, and ketchup bottles, polypropylene does not pose any health risks. Plastic #5 is recycled into bins, signal lights, brooms, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, pallets, and bicycle racks.

Plastic #6 – PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene – also known as Styrofoam – is notorious for how difficult it is to recycle. Anything that we cannot recycle properly is automatically terrible for the environment. That’s why most recycling programs won’t pick it up. In addition, this plastic type also leaches potentially toxic chemicals (when heated), which is why it poses a health risk. Plastic #6 is commonly found in CD cases, meat trays, egg cartons, and disposable plates and cups. In the few cases when it is recycled, it is used to make foam packing, vents, egg cartons, and insulation.

Plastic #7 – Other / Miscellaneous

All of the stray plastics that don’t fit into the other six categories are automatically considered part of the #7 category. Usually, we include here polycarbonate plastics, which contain the toxic bisphenol-A (BPA). Due to the fact that BPA is a hormone disruptor (linked to hyperactivity, infertility, and reproductive problems), you are strongly urged to avoid these plastics.

Plastic #7 is used to manufacture iPod cases, sunglasses, computer cases, 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, nylon, and bullet-proof materials. If recycled, it turns into plastic lumber and other custom-made products.

Tips for Reducing Your Plastic Use

If possible, we should all seek to purchase plastic-free products or those not packaged in plastic. Here are some tips on how you can do that:

  • When buying coffee from Starbucks, bring your own mug.
  • Keep reusable shopping bags in your car for whenever you need to buy groceries.
  • Don’t buy bottled water; instead, invest in a reusable water bottle.
  • Replace plastic bags for food storage with glass mason jars.
  • When dealing with restaurant leftovers, make sure you take your own non-plastic container with you.
  • Request no plastic wrap on your dry cleaning (or for you daily newspaper).
  • Avoid disposable utensils; use stainless steel instead.
  • When possible, buy foods in bulk; you save on plastic packaging.
  • Replace your plastic kitchenware with ceramic or glass options.

Plastic is often found in processed food packaging (including the plastic lining used for canned foods and beverages). Therefore, this is good reason for you to include more primarily fresh, whole foods in your diet. That way, you have the added benefit of cutting down on exposure to plastic chemicals commonly found in the food packages sold at supermarkets.

Plastic numbers turned out to be rather helpful, didn’t they? But what are some other green ways of reducing your plastic use? Share your experiences and talk to us in the comments below.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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