Puzzling Plastics

The Environmental Movement of the 1970s motivated the American public to recognize the importance of recycling. Today, curbside recycling programs have expanded greatly – according to The Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report, 59% of US households have access to curbside recycling.  However, access to these programs does not guarantee effective recycling. Plastic products are labeled with a Resin Identification Code (RIC), indicated by a number inside three arrows forming a triangle, typically printed on the bottom of the item. This number represents the specific type of plastic from which the product was made. Many curbside programs are unable to recycle certain types of plastics, as indicated by their RIC. When confronted with plastics of varying forms, and curbside programs with specific requirements for what items can be accepted, many people are unsure of what can and can’t go in their bin. This confusion can hinder our ability to recycle effectively. Throwing out items that actually are recyclable results in more plastic accumulating in landfills. Incorrectly placing non-recyclables in the recycling contaminates the entire bin, often resulting in the entire batch of recyclables having to be thrown out. 

Plastics that are not recycled end up in landfills where they will remain for thousands of years. There, the plastics slowly begin to break down, leaching harmful chemicals into the soil where they can contaminate the groundwater. In aquatic ecosystems these chemicals can bioaccumulate in the animals, making their way up the food chain. Plastic pollution has also caused many other issues for aquatic species. Larger plastics are carried to our oceans by wind, rain, and through our drains. Fish and other marine animals often consume these plastics, which can then cause them to starve as the indigestible plastic remains trapped in their stomach. Animals may also become entangled in the floating plastics, unable to escape. These plastic traps can begin to cut into the animals causing physical wounds, or may significantly restrict the animal causing them to drown. Eventually plastic litter in the ocean begins to break down, shedding tiny particles known as microplastics into the water. These tiny fragments are easily ingested and can accumulate in animals’ tissues. In order to reduce the risks plastics pose to animals, we must pay attention to the products we use. Looking for alternatives to common household plastics and ensuring that we properly dispose of the plastics we use, are simple steps we can take to address this problem. This guide seeks to help individuals become better educated regarding proper recycling protocol and safe plastic alternatives.

Hand Soap Containers

Hand soap containers are typically made of plastic #1, polyethylene terephthalate. This type of plastic (known as PET or PETE) is the most common plastic because it’s inexpensive and lightweight. This material is highly demanded by manufacturers, as it poses a low risk of leaching during breakdown. It can also be found in most water bottles, soda bottles, cleaning supply bottles, and food containers. Being the most common plastic, PET is also thankfully the most easily recycled. It is accepted by all curbside programs, as long as it has been cleaned prior to disposal. After being recycled, PET can be repurposed into polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, bottles and food containers.

Although these types of containers are very recyclable, it is still a good idea to try to reduce your plastic waste. The recycling process requires energy from fossil fuels, meaning it is a more sustainable option to use reusable alternatives. Some alternatives to using PET plastics are using glass containers, making do-it-yourself (DIY) products, and supporting sustainable brands like Organic Valley, Nature’s Path, and Stonyfield. If you go on Pinterest, there are recipes for DIY cleaning and beauty products using ingredients found in your home. You can either use glass containers (as long as they are clean) from around your household, or buy budget-friendly ones from the Dollar Store.

Hugz Kids’ Drinks

These drink containers are made from plastic #2, high-density polyethylene (HDPE). Other products made with this plastic include gallon milk/water jugs, laundry detergent bottles, shampoo containers, motor oil bottles, and even some plastic bags. HDPE has a low risk of leaching during breakdown, similar to PET. HDPE is a recyclable plastic accepted by most curbside recycling programs. Recycled HDPE can then be used to make laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipes, lumber, benches, fencing, and shampoo bottles.

When buying kids drinks, check the plastic type and do your best to recycle what you can. Some brands are more sustainable and use fully recyclable materials. As a consumer, try to purchase from these brands and show your support for sustainable companies. Another option is to use reusable water bottles and fill those with your child’s drink of choice. This eliminates the need for single-use drink containers. Some brands that look out for both the earth and kids are Ecococoon and Klean Kanteen. If you prefer ones with built in straws to prevent spills, Precidio and Rubbermaid both have these options. If neither of these options work for you, there are single use pouches and containers that can be recycled through Terracycle. Honest Kids partnered with Terracycle to create a program where you can send in your empty juice pouches for them to recycle for you. 

Plastic Tubes (Hand Lotion and Toothpaste)

Many cosmetics and other products such as lotions and toothpastes come in plastic, squeezable tubes. These tubes vary greatly by material. They can include aluminum and steel and can include different types of plastics such as nylon. In most cases each of these components must be recycled separately. Toothpaste tubes are typically made from plastic #4 (also known as low-density polyethylene), aluminum, or a plastic-aluminum composite. 

Generally, plastic #4 and aluminum tubes will be the easiest to recycle locally. Plastic items that are less than 40 x 40mm (as these tubes often are) are unlikely to be recycled, as they are often removed during a step in the recycling process that is designed to remove small contaminates. Additionally, in order for plastics to be recycled, they must be washed thoroughly, however this may be difficult to accomplish with these types of products. Due to the sticky residue left on the inside of the bottles, as well as the assortment of plastics used in its structure, plastic tubes cannot just be thrown out with your regular recycling. However, through Terracycle’s Oral Recycling Program, some of these items can be successfully recycled. You can fill a box with toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes and caps, toothpaste cartons, toothbrush outer packaging, and floss containers and mail it back to TerraCycle where they will be able recycle them. For each shipment over two pounds, you’ll receive two TerraCycle points, which can be redeemed for cash donations to the school or nonprofit organization of your choice. This program is completely free. Another option would be to check with your city’s recycling program to see if there are any local programs that will accept these items. 

To avoid having to dispose of these plastics, look into toothpaste alternatives. One fun way to reduce your plastic waste is to make your own toothpaste! Although this may seem daunting, it’s actually quite easy. Simply mix some coconut oil, baking soda, sea salt, guar gum, with a whitening agent such as turmeric or Diatomaceous earth. Feel free to add some flavoring agents such as stevia, mint, or cinnamon. 

Medicine Bottles

Pill bottles that you pick up from a pharmacy are made of plastic #5, polypropylene (PP). Bottles that hold over-the-counter medication are most commonly made of plastic #1 (PET or PETE), plastic #2 (HDPE) and #5 plastics. White opaque bottles are typically #1 or #2 plastic, while clear or colored bottles are more likely to be #5 plastic. Check the bottom of the container to make sure!

Pill bottles and over-the-counter medicine bottles are made of recyclable plastic, however they may not be accepted in your local curbside program. It is their size, not their material, that make pill bottles difficult to recycle. Prescription bottles often end up sitting in a landfill because they are not recycled properly. Many recycling programs with curbside pickup sort their recyclables with a screening device called a trommel, a rotary screen with small holes that is used to sift through material and remove unwanted debris. Bottles, cans, and containers as large as water bottles remain in the trommel for proper recycling, but pill bottles will often fall through the holes and get sent to a landfill. In order to ensure your medicine bottles don’t end up in a landfill, ask your local curbside recycling program if they accept prescription bottles (or #5 plastic). If you’re unsure about what recycling services are available near you, you can use 1-800-RECYCLING’s recycling location search tool. You can also recycle prescription bottles through Preserve’s Gimme 5 program, which makes consumer products from recycled plastics. They have a few commercial partners, but by far their most popular partnership is with Whole Foods. Many Whole Foods now have a drop off bin for #5 plastics that they later ship to Preserve, who makes them into recycled household products including toothbrushes, razors, tableware, and kitchen products.

Bottle Caps

Although they may be small, plastic bottle caps are not to be forgotten. Found on water bottles, milk cartons, coffee creamer, and many other beverages, bottle caps are typically made from polypropylene with some also being made of  high-density polyethylene (HDPE), plastics #5 and #2 respectively. These plastics can sometimes be recycled. Depending on the requirements of your local curbside recycling program, you may be able to toss them in the recycling alongside their matching bottles. Some organizations refuse to accept the caps as they tend to cause issues since the cap is usually made out of a different type of plastic than the rest of the container. According to Signe Gilson, the Waste Diversion Manager for Cleanscapes, an eco-friendly solid waste and recycling collector, it is possible to recycle almost any plastic. However when two types are mixed, they tend to contaminate each other, requiring separation before they can be processed. Additionally, since they’re so small, bottle caps can end up jamming processing equipment at facilities. Containers whose caps have not been removed will oftentimes not compact correctly during the recycling process. Not only can bottle caps be tricky to deal with, but they can also be dangerous. The caps are a potential safety risk for workers at recycling plants, as tightly fastened bottles can explode when exposed to high temperatures.

If your local recycling company does not accept bottle caps, try sending them elsewhere to areas where they are accepted. If you are lucky enough to live in one of these areas, make sure to check with your local recyclers regarding special instructions. Some programs only accept the caps if they are separated from their containers. If you are unable to find a location where your caps can be recycled, the responsible thing to do would be to place them correctly in the garbage.

To avoid contributing further to plastic in landfills, look into using alternatives for plastic bottles. There are plenty of effective and fashionable options for reusable bottles on the market. If you must purchase an item that only comes in plastic bottles, try to buy the largest size option rather than multiple small ones – this allows for less caps to be needed for the same amount of product. Additionally, some organizations are seeking to tackle the issue of plastic pollution by collecting people’s bottle caps.

Contact Lenses/Cases

Contact lenses are unintentionally being thrown down the toilet or sink and ending up in the oceans. These tiny lenses are made of silicone hydrogel which is a water-absorbing plastic. Contact lenses alone add about 44,000 pounds of plastic to the ocean each year. Not only is the contact itself plastic, but so is the container it comes in. These containers, called blister packs, are hard plastics with a foil covering. After the blister pack is opened, many people store their contacts in hard contact cases that are also made of plastic.

Using contacts creates many forms of plastic waste. While the lenses themselves are made from silicone based plastics, the blister packs and hard cases are made from #5 plastic polypropylene. Silicone can technically be recycled, however it usually needs to be sent to special silicone processing facilities in order to be recycled properly. The lenses are also too small for many recycling facilities to process correctly, so they often have to be thrown into the garbage. Many people overlook contact lenses, simply flushing or rinsing them away. This threatens aquatic life since the lenses are mistaken for food, and can break down into microplastics and end up in the food chain. Contact cases and blister packs can sometimes be recycled (as long as the foil on the blister pack is removed first). The polypropylene used in blister packs and cases is a tough and lightweight plastic. Right now in the United States only 3% of polypropylene plastics are recycled. 

Nearly 45 million people in the United States wear contacts without knowing the best way to recycle them. One program that is helping out with this issue is the ONE by ONE recycling program. Bausch + Lomb have teamed up with Terracycle to deal with hard-to-recycle products like contacts. Through this program, contact lenses, blister packs and their foil can be recycled. This works by collecting all of your contact waste and dropping it off at a local optometrist or shipping it to Terracycle. They then recycle the foil and melt the plastics to form new post-consumer products. More information regarding this program can be found on Terracycle’s website

Clamshell Containers

Clamshell containers are plastic containers designed with two halves hinged together allowing them to open and close. These types of containers typically store fruits, restaurant leftovers, herbs and lettuce, etc. They are made from plastic #1 PET thermoform,  plastic #5 polypropylene, or plastic #3 PVC. They are most commonly used for product packaging as they enable the consumer to see the item within the container, and are also lightweight making them cheaper to transport. Since these containers come in so many different shapes and sizes, recycling them can be confusing. The ones made from PVC are not accepted by most curbside recycling programs since PVC contains chlorine and other hazardous additives. When chlorine is burned it releases toxic chemicals that can enter the water, air, and food chain. Just like contact cases, clamshell containers can also be made from polypropylene. This plastic isn’t accepted in most curbside recycling programs. Unlike other #1 plastics, PET thermoform containers are not recyclable since they need to be heated at a different temperature. To add to the already complicated disposal of clamshell containers, most of the time there is an adhesive on it which can’t be recycled.

There are alternatives to using clamshells. For example, when you go to a restaurant use your own tupperware from home instead of using single-use plastic containers. Buy your fruits and vegetables from stores that allow you to use your own containers or buy in bulk. Just these two simple changes could create a big change since 60% of clamshell containers used, come from the food industry. You can also advocate for less plastic to be used within packaging. Amazon, PepsiCo, Coca Cola, and Walmart have developed initiatives to use less new plastic in their packaging and to start using more recycled plastics. Some companies such as Home Depot are trying to refrain from using clamshells at all. Try to support companies who want to make a change and take your own steps to avoid using clamshell containers. 

Menstrual Products

Plastics can be found all over the bathroom. Shampoo bottles, toothbrushes, and deodorant containers are only a few examples. However, some bathroom plastics are frequently overlooked – especially menstrual products. The average person who menstruates uses 20 tampons a month; this adds up to 240 a year. Not only is this expensive, but it is also wasteful. Tampons usually have plastic wrappers, plastic applicators, plastic strings, and a thin layer of plastic in the absorbent materials. Similarly, pads are mostly made of plastic and also have plastic wrappers. When these products are flushed down the toilet, they often end up in oceans since they can slip through waste treatment plants undetected. While the wrappers and products themselves are not recyclable, tampon applicators technically are, but usually are not accepted for sanitary reasons. It may seem as though there is no solution to this issue because some people are always going to menstruate and need products, however there are ways to reduce this waste.

One way that people who menstruate can reduce their bathroom plastic waste is by using reusable menstrual products. One example of this is a menstrual cup. These are usually made of silicon or latex and when properly cared for can last from six months to ten years. Some popular brands are The Diva Cup and Lunette. Another low-waste option is environmentally-friendly tampons. These can be made with or without an applicator. Eco-friendly tampons with the applicator are usually made with biodegradable cardboard. Brands that sell sustainable tampons are Oi and Veeda. A third option is period underwear. These look and feel like regular underwear, but have a built in pad that is washable. Some companies that sell these are Thinx and Bambody.  


Our clothes are made of millions of microfibers, which are tiny pieces of plastic. They are often found in rayon, cotton, and polyester-cotton blend products. These are typically made from plastic #1.  When we wash our clothes, many of these microfibers go down the drain, causing plastic pollution in the ocean. This occurs because many washing machines do not have a device that can trap the lint, similar to the lint trap in a dryer. The issue may be exacerbated by the use of laundry detergent and warm water because both can make it easier for broken or loose fibers to escape. In each load, the amount of microfibers that are released can range from a few thousand to 12 million. Since they are a microplastic, they can be consumed by species such as baby fish, zooplankton, and crabs. These species are then consumed by larger creatures and the plastics move up through the food chain through a process called biomagnification. 

Unfortunately, microfibers are not a recyclable form of plastic, however there are some ways to reduce the amount of microplastics that are released into the ocean when we wash our clothes. One option is to buy higher quality clothing. This solution may not be feasible for some people, but it can be worth the higher price tag because your clothes will also last longer. Companies like Patagonia and REI are doing a lot of research on how to develop clothes that release less microfibers when washed. Some other ways you can help are by washing your clothes less, washing on a delicate cycle, using a front loading machine, and getting a lint trap for your machine. Fitrol and Lint Luv-R are brands that make filters for your washing machine that stop microfibers before they can get to the ocean. 

Grocery Bags

Grocery bags are considered a plastic film, which is a family of flexible plastics no more than 10 mils thick. A mil (not to be confused with a millimeter) is equal to one one-thousandth of an inch, so plastic films are no wider than one one-hundredth of an inch. The majority of plastic films are made of a resin known as low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a #4 plastic. Most plastic films can be found in the form of bags, with the material commonly being used to package food. Grocery bags, produce bags, bread bags, cake mix bags, resealable sandwich bags, and even bubble wrap are all made of plastic film. Plastic film products have become so popular as they require relatively little plastic and are more energy-efficient to produce than other thicker bags. 

Technically grocery bags are recyclable, although recycling them does require some extra steps. LDPE is not accepted by most curbside recycling programs. The films can end up jamming sorting machines, or may become too dirty in curbside bins to be properly recycled. Thankfully, there are national programs in place that allow people to recycle their plastic films. Once you remove any labels or other materials from the bags and make sure they’re clean and dry, you can recycle them at a local drop-off location. These drop-offs are often located in grocery stores. If you need help finding your nearest one, visit the Plastic Film Recycling website to locate it. If you are having trouble discerning whether or not a bag is a recyclable film, check out the FAQs page on the Plastic Film Recycling website. The information on that website is backed by the American Chemistry Council.

If you’re looking to reduce your plastic film consumption all together, try looking into the many alternatives that exist on the market. Bring reusable bags to the grocery store to avoid coming home with multiple plastic ones. Instead of bubble wrap, try using biodegradable packing peanuts. If you frequently use resealable bags to pack lunches or store food, consider purchasing reusable glass or metal containers. If you appreciate the flexibility of plastic bags and want a less rigid option, there are also reusable, resealable bags made of silicone available. Buying in bulk results in less plastic film packaging, so purchase goods in bulk if possible. Plastic films can also be reused. Resealable bags can be washed and turned inside out to dry allowing them to be used again, just make sure to avoid reusing ones that originally held perished goods or animal products. Materials like bubble wrap can also be used more than once in order to maximize the plastic’s utility.

Cling Wrap

Cling wrap is a unique type of plastic that also falls under the category of plastic film. The sticky, lightweight wrap is commonly used for sealing containers of food in order to keep them fresh for a longer duration of time. This practicality has made it an attractive option for consumers. Historically, cling wrap was made using a #3 plastic called Polyvinylidene Chloride, more commonly known as PVC. Recently however, alternatives to PVC like LDPE have become more widely used in producing cling wrap as a result of health concerns surrounding PVC. LDPE is currently the most popular packaging material since it’s cheap, light weight, has properties that serve as a barrier against water, has good mechanical properties, and is much more energy efficient. 

Most cling wraps are not recyclable curbside, but can be given to some retailers who collect plastic films for recycling. If you want to reduce your plastic waste but need a convenient solution to storing leftovers, look into some sticky alternatives. One option is reusable beeswax food wraps that can last as long as a year. These wraps come in a variety of adorable patterns, and seal together using heat from your hands.

Plastic Utensils

Plastic utensils are another plastic item that people often debate recycling. These utensils are most commonly made using polystyrene, a plastic also used in styrofoam. Polystyrene  plastic utensils are classified as a #6 plastic. Less frequently, plastic utensils can be made of plastic #1 PET or plastic #5 polypropylene, both of which are recyclable materials. In most cases, #6 plastics cannot be put in the bin with the rest of your recycles. However, some areas will accept polystyrene curbside, so make sure to look into your local recycling program to see if you are able to recycle #6 plastics. Technically, it is possible for plastic utensils to be recycled, however few recycling programs are willing to accept them as polystyrene is very expensive to recycle. At recycling facilities, machines sort out the different types of plastics to ensure that they are properly recycled. The distinct shape and small size of utensils can make it very difficult for these machines to correctly sort them out. Although recycling them may be especially difficult, throwing away these utensils can have incredibly harmful consequences. The Ocean Conservancy lists plastic cutlery as one of the deadliest items to sea creatures. 

In order to avoid contributing to the harmful effects of plastic pollution, try to avoid using plastic cutlery. Invest in a set of reusable utensils for your home, and maybe a travel set too to take with you out of the house. Frequently restaurants will automatically include plastic silverware in their take-out or delivery orders, so make sure to request no single-use plastics when you place your order in order to avoid unnecessary waste. If you’re planning on hosting a party or other event where you need to feed large groups of people, try to find biodegradable or compostable options instead of plastic ones.

Addressing the Bigger Issue

Recycling is a confusing game with countless rules, but continuing to educate ourselves on proper plastic disposal is an important part of our journey to a sustainable future. To work towards a greener lifestyle, make a plan to reduce your household’s waste generation. Making these changes and adjusting our habits and behaviors can be difficult, but individual actions such as these can help us achieve our much larger goal of a less wasteful society. 


All About Vision, American Plastics Council, CNN, Earth 911, Earth Day, Eating Made Easy, EPA, Good Housekeeping, Groundswell, Hunker, Indian Journal of Microbiology, Mayo Clinic, Millennium Recycling, National Geographic, Patagonia, Plastic Film Recycling, PBS, Recycle Nation, Scientific American, She Thinx, Terracycle, The Recycling Partnership, ThoughtCo, US Packaging and WBUR, World Wildlife Fund, Wrapping LLC, Vangel