Are You Recycling Your Plastics the Right Way? What You Need to Know

Not all plastics are created equal, and the same goes for recycling them.

Katie Teague Writer II
Katie is a writer covering all things how-to at CNET, with a focus on Social Security and notable events. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing in golf scrambles, practicing yoga and spending time on the lake.
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Plastic Kroger bags

Learn how to identify recyclable plastics and make sure they don't contaminate other recyclables.

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Recycling your plastics is a great way to help the environment, but you can't simply toss any water bottle or cellophane wrapper into the recycling bin -- some plastics are better off in the trash. And if you don't clean your recyclable plastics properly, they could end up contaminating other recyclables.  

Plastic that isn't recycled is either put in landfills or incinerated, or it 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 Climate.gov. 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 might be 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 whole 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. 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," it must be composted and not recycled.

Reusable bottles in sand

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

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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.