Why All Plastic Containers Can’t be Recycled

by Luke on February 23, 2011

I frequently get asked 2 important questions about recycling.

  1. If a plastic container has a recycling symbol on the bottom of it, doesn’t that mean it’s recyclable?
  2. Why can some plastic containers be recycled and others can’t?

Both are very good questions.  Unfortunately, the answers aren’t as simple as people would like.

If a container has a recycling symbol on the bottom, doesn’t that mean it’s recyclable?

No.  Believe it or not, the recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic containers has nothing to do with if the container is recyclable or not.  The numbered symbol on the bottom is an ASTM (formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials) resin identification code that is used to help sort the type of plastic a product or package is made from – it doesn’t mean that it is actually recycled though.

Most Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs – where trash haulers take the stuff people recycle) are manually-operated and the line-employees sometimes look at the bottom of containers to see what number they are and to sort them into the proper like-resin bin.  However, that’s not their primary method of sorting.  Just because a container is made from a certain resin doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled.  There are other factors involved that I’ll discuss in a minute.  Having seen MRF operations, the resin code isn’t even looked at the majority of the time by the laborers who manually sort the reclaimed materials.  (This is where questions usually start flying like “why even have the symbol then?”)

(Plastic recycling starts at 8:36)

So let’s say a container has a #1 on the bottom (PETE) which is one of the most widely accepted plastics for recycling.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the container is going to be recycled which leads to the second question.

Why can some containers be recycled and others can’t?

At the MRF level, a container’s recyclability is determined by two non-mutually exclusive factors: (1) what resin it is made from (indicated by the ASTM code and triangle symbol on the bottom), and (2) the shape of the container.  However, at the macro-level, a container’s recyclability is determined by the market demand for that specific type of reclaimed product (taking into consideration both resin type and shape).

MRFs have two primary functions.  They sort collected materials and then they bale (and sell) those materials.  They can sort all the materials in the world, but if there isn’t a market to sell the materials they sort, then they are sorting just to sort – there’s nothing to do with the materials once they are nicely organized.

Since MRFs rely on people to buy the sorted materials, they are paid on the quality of the bales they produce.  The higher the quality (READ:  less contamination), the more they can typically get.  With limited resources that MRFs have, they don’t have the time or bandwidth to carefully sort every type of resin/container that comes in.  So they have to pick and choose.  And one thing they do know is that nearly all water bottles and clear narrow-neck bottles (i.e. soda bottles) are made with PETE.  They have come to trust that as nearly fact which also means their buyers of bales also trust it as fact.

For efficiency reasons, they collect, bale and sell all of the narrow-neck PETE bottles, but most MRFs do not do the same for odd-shaped containers even if they are made from the same PETE (i.e. plastic containers that spinach or mixed greens come in). The simple reason is that there are so many containers made from so many different types of resins that the manual laborers on the sorting lines at MRFs can’t sort every single container.  The lines move too fast and there are too many types of containers.  Even further, the economics aren’t as good for bales of containers even if a MRF claims to have a bale of just PETE containers.  The reason is because the contamination of other materials is likely to be higher in “container” bales than “bottle” bales so MRFs (1) can’t get as much money for them and (2) there aren’t as many buyers for them since buyers want clean, uncontaminated bales.

What This All Means to You the Consumer

We can put all the containers we want into our recycling bins, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be recycled when they get to the MRF.  In fact, if a container actually can’t be recycled but is sent to a MRF, it will end up being sorted by the MRF and sent to a landfill which ends up costing the MRF money (they have to pay to dump the stuff instead of get paid to sell good quality reclaimed materials).  What’s driving this is two things:  (1) lack of widespread optical sorting technology to better sort resins and materials at MRFs, and (2) the nonexistence of a market that is willing to pay more for mixed bales.

Ultimately, however, the major driver in all of this is not enough demand for recycled materials.  If greater demand for recycled materials existed, better sorting technology would be developed at a lower cost and there would be a market willing to buy mixed bales at good economic prices.

What does this mean for consumers?  Plain and simple, BUY PRODUCTS MADE FROM RECYCLED MATERIALS! And ask retailers to carry more recycled products.  Be an activist with your wallet.  Consumers ultimately dictate what retailers sell and we need to let them know that we want more recycled materials.  The long-term effect will be that you’ll be able to recycle every shaped container in the future.

  • David Brown

    Hi Luke. I like your article. I’ve bought millions of pounds of aluminum and copper from the public in the Roanoke, VA area over the past 20 years. I field a variety of questions about recycling various products. Encouraging people to buy recycled containers is great, but above that, I encourage people to avoid containers whenever possible. And especially plastic! I know it’s light, and it doesn’t shatter like glass; but it’s a nasty OIL product!!! A great reason to avoid it, right? I have also told people time and time again that just because we take a container to a recycling center doesn’t mean it gets recycled. Many times, I’m sure they end up in landfills – although they may have been pelletized or shredded before they arrive.

    • Holly

      My recycler takes 1-7 at curbside service. If all plastics are 1-7 and 7 just means “other or mixed” why can’t they take unlabeled plastics as #7? And if they don’t have a use for #7, why offer to pick them up in the first place?

      • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke Vernon

        I knowing sounds crazy, but they pick them up usually because one of two reasons: 1) to make it easy for residents so they don’t have to worry about sorting which means the reclaimer gets a higher volume of overall material, or more commonly 2) the municipality requires that the hauler picks everything up so they can offer a broader program to residents.

  • Samantha Johnson

    Thanks for clarifying this. My husband (theflotsamdiaries.blogspot.com) is mulling this very topic over. It’s a shame that we are led to believe that putting the plastics we consume into the recycling bin is enough – it isn’t. You are exactly on point when you say that consumers need to be the driving force. We also need to take the responsibility of educating ourselves.

  • Dan Moore

    Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve forwarded it on to a couple of folks. It was jarring to me when I learned that the arrows on the bottom of a plastic container didn’t guarantee it could be recycled, so I’m glad to have a place to point people now.

  • Lilian

    Hi Lucke!
    Tks for share these informations!
    I had the same questions and sometime is hard to know the differences.
    Peace, love and health!

  • Kevin Castenbaum

    Might as well go back to buying styrofoam since recycling is just a myth. I never did buy into all this crap Sysco feeds me on these products being recycled or composted.

    • Luke

      Kevin, although it can be frustrating that not all plastic containers are actually recyclable, I definitely wouldn’t suggest reverting back to styrofoam. Compostable foodservice disposables are actually composted in many places and some can actually be recycled if the local MRF accepts those shapes. And in the end, it’s better to use products made from renewable resources and recycled materials as opposed to virgin petroleum like foam. If we keep asking questions and pushing manufacturers and legislators, we’ll collectively make progress.

    • Eco girl 123

      recylcing is not just a myth, you are obvioulsy just not educated

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  • Patty

    Dan, I agree with your conclusion that we should buy products made from recycled materials and ask retainers to carry them, but it is not from lack of demand that most plastic containers are not recycled, it is from lack of domestic infrastructure. In China they can (and do) recycle just about all plastic packaging. Many mixed resin bales generated in U.S MRFs go to China. In fact this study shows that more the 40% of the U.S. population has access to recycling all bottles and non-bottle plastic containers! The Chinese government has made the “Circular Society” reduce, reuse, recycle a priority in China and has invested in the infrastructure in the form of grants and tax breaks, while we here in the U.S. are not making those investments, but should be doing so to create jobs and retain our valuable resources!

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  • Turbo

    Every think can be recycled all it needs is a market and if that don’t exist create one.
    If we cant use the form think about changing it can it be changed? All this plastic must be able to be processed into blocks, blocks have a use. Construction, creation of boundaries and other such uses. I work in civils (Utilities) and see so much waste. If we cant sell it to be processed then bring the processing to the source.

    Lots of small processing can bring about 1 large change. Bring it to the house-hold. Small hand driven machines (we now have wind up lights) can be produced to reduce the plastic and paper to shreds this can be maybe reused easier. (not too small as it doe not need to get into the food chain. And does have to be manually driven as we don’t need to create more demand for electricity. There is enough energy in the over eating people in the economies of our modern countries.

    Don’t give up

    • Jenny Hetherington

      If people would only take time to read what they write, they would realize that no one can understand what they are trying to convey. Frankly, I cannot take time to sort out the jumble of words this person submitted. This is a “waste” of my time.

      • Daru Stevens

        Jenny, Turbo made some very awkward, but wise comments. It amazes me to find wisdom in less-than-articulate writing. (S)He has a difficult time putting her/his thoughts into words, but his/her effort is admirable AND so positive. “It can be done! We can do it!” “Lots of little things can make a big change.” And sometimes it just makes me smile: are over weight people contributing to our energy deficit? Oh goodness: un-nutritious food contributes to obesity, and all that is connected to recycling… which uses energy to save energy…

        • Jenny Hetherington

          Is it really that uncouth to suggest that a person reread what they wrote? Look at it as constructive criticism and not as simply criticism. I reread everything I write…!

          • Daru Stevens

            Oh heavens no, Jenny. I reread everything carefully. Good advice. I reread Turbo’s remarks again, and realized they were actually well written, but awkward and missing punctuation. Then I realized he was very likely writing English as a second language. Bravo! I’d not try that… My take, he or she is a professional with a sincere desire to share his concerns across cultures. So I’d encourage him/her to continue, and polish the punctuation a bit…

            I confess to being a retired English teacher. I truly appreciate good writing.

            Thank you for responding! I would not have taken the time to decipher Turbo’s comments had your note not intrigued me.

          • Jenny Hetherington

            My mother tongue is French. I learned English by memorizing grammatical rules. And it bothers to no end that people who were born in an English-speaking environment are incapable of spelling or composing a simple sentence. Perhaps, I was wrong in this case, but maybe someone else will follow my advice.

          • Matt Elliot

            Well, he wrote that post two years ago… Maybe he can write it again now that he has been practicing and it’ll make a little more sense.

          • Jenny Hetherington

            I may have been wrong in my criticism, but “Checkmark” proves my point: that people do not take the time to review what they write or bother to correct their mistakes. Surely, our manuscript-writer could have made some simple, but substantial, corrections to his rantings.

          • Cameron Hill

            You made an error, so miss perfect isn’t so perfect after all. Damn woman. Proving your own point with your own mistake is fine enough. Lol

          • Terri

            Wow, what a jerk. Is that clear enough for you?

          • Jenny Hetherington

            Your reply shows a lot of class. You may wish to take lessons in manners, if you know the meaning of that word! At least, I had the good sense to apologize and recognize my error.

          • Terri

            “I may have been wrong” is not an apology. You clearly need some manners taught to you, my dear. You picked a fight on this thread from the beginning. How does it feel? Buh bye. I won’t waste anymore time on the likes of you.

          • Jenny Hetherington

            Best news I received today! Thanks!

          • Anonymous

            Your argument of knowing the rules of English grammar was just made invalid by your improper use of a comma. Good job

          • Jenny Hetherington

            At least be brave enough to use your name if you are going to comment. Perhaps, you should end your sentences with a period?

          • Frank Joachim

            I’m terrible with English, and perhaps I’m wrong on both accounts here… but isn’t your sentence “And it bothers to no end that people who were born in an English-speaking environment are incapable of spelling or composing a simple sentence” – grammatically incorrect?

            I thought it was frowned upon to begin a sentence with a conjunction, such as you did with “And”. Additionally, I believe you missed the word “me”… “it bothers [me] to no end”?

            Like I said, I could be completely wrong, but I thought I’d point it out since you’re being a grammar Nazi.

          • Checkmarked

            I wonder just how great is your skills in writing in French. English is a difficult language and I can promise you, Jenny, you are not that great at writing it. I have several editors, I am happy to say, who write, teach or speak for very important business and educational organizations. Without them I would be a disaster at writing my manuscripts. Even they make mistakes when it comes to written English.

            The topic is recycling. If you could not understand what he wrote, try using a more acceptable tone when you inform the writer you don’t comprehend what they are trying to convey. Next make your remarks about the article and forget about degrading someone who is at least using critical thinking to respond to the article.
            People seldom take advice given to them in a pompous discourteous

            Don’t critique my writing because your opinion of another
            person you don’t know leaves me bias about anything you have to say about anyone or topic.

            Now, about the topic recycling.
            There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw
            away anything it goes somewhere.” – Annie Leonard

          • Jenny Hetherington

            Thank you for your constructive criticisms. I would be pleased to correct your “manuscripts” for you since none of your editors appears to do a proper job.

          • Cameron Hill

            Wow. You are a bonified bitch. By the way, it should have been “editors appear to do” not “editors appears to do”.

          • Tubular Topher

            I completely agree and support your concerns Jenny. However, have you ever taken into consideration that the person behind the post or comment might suffer from some form of writing disability? Like I’ve said before, I applaud you for your constructive criticism, but take this into consideration next time before writing things like “this is a waste of my time.” Even though writing correctly helps convey information much more efficiently, I can easily decipher the main points Turbo was getting across through all the jumble. Maybe you suffer with a deciphering impairment?

          • Jenny Hetherington

            I think you hit it on the spot: I suffer from a deciphering impairment. But I wonder what you would be diagnosed with? Still criticizing me nine months later? Can’t leave it alone? Still really irks you? Inability to stop nagging? The need to continue to put a person down? Inferiority complex? Who’s got a chip on her/his shoulder? Not me. I apologized for my comment…I hope you too can rise to the occasion.

  • Gigi

    Hi Luke,

    I just want to commend you on a thorough, concise explanation. I have been frustrated for too long over why the same darn plastic can’t be recycled when not “narrow neck” and couldn’t figure out what the problem was. My question is finally answered! Thanks for all you do.

  • Somebodies Dawn

    The alternative is to use less plastics. We managed for ages without plastics, so we could go back to use some packaging that isn’t made of plastic.

    • Tubular Topher

      Where would all the plastic go once everyone stops using it?

  • Bruce David

    The symbol number on the bottom of plastic containers, determine the resin material? So here’s a simple question, I open up a cottage cheese container and finish off the product and put some other food in it and into the fridge to store it! My “Ziplock” container has the exact symbol number on the bottom and I can reuse it to store food in it? So what is the difference???I am confused, some can reuse and some can not|? Clarification would be most helpful Bruce

    • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke Vernon

      If it has the same number on the bottom, it’s made out of the same material. I know it’s confusing.

  • David

    My recycling center only accepts #1 and #2 plastics. It even lists on a sheet that was mailed to us what is acceptable. But when you go down to drop them off they complain oh we can’t take that but on the mailer it clearly says they do. They gripe about #2 plastics…they seem to take them when they are milk jugs but when you take #2 rinsed out shampoo bottles and laundry detergent bottles they gripe.

  • http://everydayisasecondchance.com Gina

    Great article, I love giving things a second chance at life. I never realized those items went in the garbage at their cost, thank you for pointing that out!

  • michaelrw

    Nice write-up, Luke. I recently moved from Tampa, FL to Syracuse, NY and one of the first observations I made was about the differences in their respective recycling programs/processes. In Tampa, plastics 1-7 were advertised as being accepted in the recycling bin. This was great. I felt like I was doing a lot of good, recycling about 95% of the plastic that I brought into my home. My trash bin and recycling bin were the same size, and I wheeled my recycle bin to the curb 3x as much as the trash bin. This made me happy.

    2 months have passed since I moved up to Syracuse. One of the first things I notice about Syracuse (and probably most of the surrounding cities and states) was the huge emphasis on recycling. In fact, I read somewhere that it is illegal to not recycle in Onondaga County (even though enforcing that is probably difficult). Additionally, recycling is a LOT more socially prevalent up in this region, which is very satisfying knowing that the majority of residents are so conscientious about recycling. However, I began to see a literature and videos published by the county describing the products that they accept. I was so used to ‘recycling’ every plastic in Tampa (except from thin plastic films) that I was expecting it to be the same up here, especially given the higher prevalence and acceptance of recycling. I began to get irritated about this, wondering so many plastics and/or container shapes were not accepted. It’s very painful for me to place plastic containers in the trash. So I eventually called the administrative offices of the county recycling program to get some clarification. Long story short, I was essentially told the same things that are presented in this article (although this article has additional details). The employee further told me how many of the plastics I was ‘recycling’ in Tampa were very likely not being recycled at all. Ugh!

    One thing I do know is that Tampa uses optical technologies that are able to separate the plastics with a relatively high level of accuracy. This, perhaps, helps them to sell bales of the less-common plastics, given their ability to produce pure bales. As Luke wrote in this article, hopefully more manufacturers will start using recycled materials. This begins with more awareness, recycling compliance, etc.

    I truly hope that more people will start to get their heads out of the sand and begin to give a damn about our environment. This whole ‘we don’t recycle’ BS is a symptom of either being lazy, entitled, ignorant or all of the above (my dad and step-mother are a perfect example of this). It’s 2016; it’s simply unacceptable. You don’t have to be a ‘tree hugger’ or a die-hard environmentalist, you just have to give a damn about the world we live in. I think all of those people could greatly benefit from a nice trip to the local landfill so they can see they mess they’ve created. That is precisely what motivated me, many years ago.

  • jerry


  • John Moricsmith

    I have a dream where one day people will have more common sense & not use this much of plastic(atleast the not biodegradable ones)

  • D

    Just recycle everything. The MRF will have to figure out what materials they are getting that are causing a problem keep statistics of the problem, then Sue the companies that make the material for time wasted and unsustainable manufacturing, or start a petition or some communication with the public. THE COMPANY IS THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM. It would probably take a few cents to make their packaging out of a recyclable material. They should be held responsible. We shouldn’t be as a public asked to try and understand the chemical makeup of plastic and whether or not it should be reused or thrown into an ocean barge. IT SHOULD JUST BE REUSED.

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