Are You Recycling Your Plastics the Wrong Way? Here’s How to Check

Earth Day is coming up on Monday, April 22, and if you’re looking for ways to start helping the environment, recycling your plastics is a great start. Note that simply tossing any and all of your plastics into the recycling bin isn’t what you should do. Instead, you need to know which plastics are recyclable and which should be tossed in the trash. But once you’ve learned these important details, you’ll be helping to reduce waste.

This story is part of CNET Zero, a series that chronicles the impact of climate change and explores what’s being done about the problem.

Plastic that isn’t recycled is either put in landfills, incinerated or finds its way into the oceans. Incinerating plastics produces carbon dioxide, which is responsible for the total energy imbalance causing the Earth’s temperature to rise, according to NOAA If placed in a landfill, plastic can take anywhere from five to 600 years to decompose, depending on what type it is. The average time it takes a plastic bottle to decompose is 450 years.

Here’s what the experts have to say about recycling plastics. For more information, here’s which takeout containers are recyclable.

How to recycle plastic

Recycling plastic is more difficult than you think. You need to rinse out any food and liquids (other than water) from the containers before you can put them in the bin. If the plastic isn’t clean, a recycling center employee told CNET, it could contaminate an entire load of plastics, causing the recycling center to send the entire batch to a landfill.

When recycling plastic bottles, check to see if they say “crush to conserve” on the label. If so, remove the lid and crush the bottle by twisting from the top and pressing it down. After it’s crushed, place the lid back on the bottle so it can also be recycled.

Know which plastics are recyclable

All plastics are not equal. In fact, many people toss all their plastics in the recycling bin without knowing if it’s recyclable or not. If it’s not an accepted plastic at the recycling center, the employees will toss it in the trash. 

So how do you know which plastics are accepted? Contact your local recycling company to see if they accept them. Many recycling companies have additional information on their website for items that can and cannot be recycled. If your local disposal company provides your recycling bin, it may list the information on the bin’s outside.

Plastic containers will typically have numbers on the bottom that denote which kind of plastic it is. For example, #1 and #2 plastics are almost always recyclable, while #6 plastics aren’t always accepted. Also, if the plastic says “compostable,” then it must be composted and not recycled.

Reusable bottles in sand

Eliminate plastic waste by using reusable bottles, straws and utensils.

Amanda Capritto/CNET

What else can I do?

The first step to preventing plastic waste is to limit your use of non-reusable plastics, like plastic bottles. Instead, opt for glass or hard plastic bottles that you can refill and use daily. Here are other ways to help.

  • Use reusable straws instead of plastic straws.
  • Avoid using plastic utensils unless they can be washed and reused.
  • Recycle plastic bags, see if your local grocery store or recycling center will take them.
  • Use cloth shopping bags.
  • Stop wasting Solo cups and choose glass or reusable plastic cups instead.
  • Reuse plastic items. Tobias Haider, a research associate at PlastX, told CNET in 2022 that “plastic products would not be a problem if we reused them.”
  • Remember that plastic foam isn’t recyclable and that includes egg cartons, packaging and peanuts. If you have quite a bit of plastic foam lying around your house, contact schools in your area to see if they can use it for projects.