Understanding What Those Recycling Numbers on Plastics Really Mean

Packaging sustainability is becoming an important issue for consumers and businesses alike. But that doesn’t mean that plastic-based packaging and containers are going away. In fact, one study indicates over a third of consumers under age 44 see great benefits to plastics. Benefits that outweigh any negatives, especially if that packaging is recycled — or recyclable.  

But deciphering the meaning of the recycling logo and its numbers can be daunting for both businesses and patrons. For example, although most items can be recycled, some can only be recycled through complex and costly processes, which can use a lot of energy and can therefore be counterproductive to sustainability.  

With more than 8 million tons of plastic ending up in our oceans and microplastics polluting our rainwater, responsible recycling and reuse of plastic materials is becoming more important than ever. To help you — and your customers — sort out the recyclable from the non-recyclable when it comes to plastics, we’ve put together this easy-to-follow cheat sheet to help you understand what those recycling numbers really represent.  

Recycling Numbers of Plastics: A Quick Primer  

Every area of the country has its own rules and regulations governing recyclables that determine what they will and will not process. However, one of the first steps toward sourcing recyclable, sustainable plastics is to gain a strong understanding of what the recycling symbols stamped on most plastic items really mean.  

The #1 Symbol: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) 

This plastic is mostly used for water, soft drinks, and other beverages due to its inexpensive, lightweight profile and the fact that it poses a minimal risk of leaching chemicals. This type of plastic is welcomed by most recycling programs, even curbside ones, if it has been properly emptied and rinsed.  

Recycled Uses: Recycled PET can be used to create more bottles, food containers, fiber, carpet, paneling, and even warm and cozy fleece. 

The #2 Symbol: High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) 

HDPE plastic is incredibly versatile and useful — especially when it comes to food packaging. It has an exceptionally low leaching risk, making it perfect for yogurt tubs, milk jugs, juice bottles, butter containers, liners for cereal boxes, and more. It is accepted by most curbside recycle programs, but grocery bags made of HDPE must be delivered to specific stores that recycle them.  

Recycled Uses: Recycled HDPE is used in a variety of materials from floor tiles and lumber to pens, drainage pipes, and shampoo bottles.  

The #3 Symbol: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) 

Cheap and durable, PVC is found in everything from vinyl siding to windows. However, it can release dioxins during the manufacturing process or if it is burned. 

Recycled Uses: PVC is rarely recycled, but some manufacturers of plastic lumber will accept it. With proper processing, it can be made into decks, flooring, mats, and more.   

The #4 Symbol: Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) 

A staple polymer for use in creating grocery and bread bags, tote bags, furniture, and squeeze bottles, LDPE is more difficult to recycle in curbside programs. However, it is accepted by some community collection programs. 

Recycled Uses: When recycled, LDPE can be reborn as floor tiles, lumber, envelopes, trash can liners, and even paneling.  

The #5 Symbol: Polypropylene (PP) 

With a high melting point that makes it perfect for food containers and other storage for hot liquids, PP plastic is becoming more accepted by recycling programs across the nation. It is typically used to create straws, yogurt tubs, medicine bottles, and bottle caps.  

Recycled Uses: PP can be recreated as bins, trays, signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, and landscape border materials.  

The #6 Symbol: Polystyrene (PS) 

This plastic can be made in either foam or rigid forms and is most often found in disposable cups and plates, egg cartons, meat trays, and for use as to-go containers. However, most recycling programs do not accept it.  

Recycled Uses: Recycled PS can be used in insulation, egg cartons, to-go containers, and foam packing, among other uses.  

The #7 Symbol: Miscellaneous 

This is a catch-all category for plastics that don’t quite fit into other groups. Hard plastics are commonly found with this symbol, as are DVDs, nylon, and even specific food containers. These are typically considered non-recyclable materials for most local programs. 

Recycled Uses: Despite the difficulty with recycling these, there are limited uses for them as custom-made products.  

Sunshine Supply — Your Choice for High Quality Plastics 

Need convenient, high-quality plastic containers, utensils, or bags? Just reach out to Sunshine today and let us help you choose the perfect items for your specific business needs. 

Discovering the Best Type of Plastic for Food Storage

With the cost of food at a 40-year high, more consumers are focusing on saving leftovers to cut down on food costs and reduce food waste. Properly storing leftovers allows food to be safely transported and preserved, helping stretch food budgets. 

Despite high food costs, more than half of U.S. consumers are eating out more often in 2022 compared to previous years, which is good news for restaurateurs. However, more people than ever are also requesting takeout containers to take leftovers to go or getting their entire order to go to save time as they rush from work to home or choose to eat lunch at their desks. This means restaurants must focus on providing smart, food-safe plastics to keep customers safe and to ensure food is easily and safely stored and reheated.  

FDA Approved: The Safest Plastics for Storage and Reheating 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has evaluated a host of plastic products based on the types of foods that will be stored and if the food will be exposed to heat during production or while being reheated. After a detailed analysis, they have approved several that they feel are the safest for storage and reheating. Here are their top picks: 

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) 

One of the most common plastics found in households today, HDPE is used in the creation of everything from plastic bottles to cutting boards. It is durable, but also flexible, allowing it to be easily molded into sturdy, long-lasting containers for food. In addition, it is resistant to the corrosive action of acidic foods, molds, and mildews, and can even be sterilized for additional safety. HDPE plastics are highly recyclable, as they can be recycled as many as 10 times to create new products. 

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) 

Another common plastic in households, LDPE is so flexible that is it not easily cracked or broken, making it perfect for durable food storage, especially since it is resistant to both chemicals and microorganisms. In fact, it is commonly used in plastic films such as cling wraps. However, it’s not the best plastic for heating since it can soften under higher temperatures. While LDPE can be recycled, it is often a complex process since many items made with this material, such as grocery bags or plastic six-pack rings, can jam recycling equipment. 

Polycarbonate (PC) 

In recent years there has been controversy over the use of polycarbonate (PC) plastics in food storage, since these contain a small amount of Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical associated with several negative health effects. However, research by the FDA shows that consumers only ingest a tiny amount of BPA when coming in contact with these plastics, and this small amount does not accumulate in the body, making it safe at low levels. PC plastics are recyclable, allowing both restaurateurs and consumers to make more sustainable choices. 

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) 

The FDA considers PET plastic one of the best for food storage, as it can be used in both its original and recycled forms. Its durability and ability to repel bacteria and microorganisms make it a good choice for soda bottles, jarred foods, and food packaging. Plus, its transparency and resistance to shattering contribute to its perceived durability, even though it does oxidize over time. Best of all, PET plastics are 100% recyclable, making it a sustainable choice for food storage. 

Polypropylene (PP) 

This premier plastic has many attributes that make it perfect for both storage and reheating of food. First, it is microwave-safe and nonvolatile, meaning it will not react with your food, whether acidic or basic. Furthermore, PP resists the absorption of water, so liquid foods such as soup can easily be stored in PP containers. Finally, PP is durable and can also be either conductive or insulating, depending on the properties you prefer and the foods you wish to store — and it is also recyclable and reusable.  

Looking for the Right Plastic Storage Containers for Your Restaurant? 

If your restaurant needs durable, high-quality to-go containers or bags, Sunshine has you covered. Our range of sturdy plastic containers can be used to store — and even reheat — foods safely. If you want to learn more about our innovative products, simply reach out to Sunshine today and one of our experts will be happy to help!