Plastic has taken over the world. It’s become unavoidable at grocery stores, whether you're shopping for fruit or cleaning supplies. You can also find it all throughout your home, from your phone case to your beauty products.
Unfortunately, with how inescapable plastic is, it's also one of the biggest sources of waste: 91% of plastic doesn't get recycled, meaning it heads straight to a landfill where it can take up to 100 years to degrade.
Not All Plastic Is Created Equal
Where there are plenty of ways to use less plastic, don't beat yourself up if you find yourself buying something packaged in or made of plastic. Because of how frequently it’s used, it’s nearly impossible to cut it out completely.
With that being said, one of the best things you can do is learn how to use less plastic. And when you do purchase something, start paying closer attention to which kind of plastic it's made from.
There are seven types of plastic for recycling, which vary in how eco-friendly (and safe) they are. While some are fairly easy to recycle, others—like Type #6—don't deserve that misleading recycling symbol. There are also types that are difficult (but possible) to recycle, like Type #4.
Here are the seven types of plastic and everything you should know about each of them, including how to correctly recycle or responsibly dispose of a particular item. Plus, how to avoid certain types of plastic.
7 Types of Plastic and Recycling Instructions
Type #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
The body of many sodas and water bottles is made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE). It's safe (as long as it remains unmelted) and is widely used by the bottle and container industries.
It's also recyclable and easy to reuse and repurpose. So even if you're given a seemingly single-use plastic like a water bottle, there's a lot you can do to keep it out of the landfill.
How to Avoid It: Use a reusable water bottle and/or an at-home soda maker.
Type #2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is used to make milk jugs, shampoo bottles, cleaning product bottles, and more. It's generally considered safe and is recyclable.
How to Avoid It: Make your own plant-based milk at home, buy shampoo and conditioner bars, and look for eco-friendly cleaning products.
Type #3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl) is one of three plastics that are extremely difficult to recycle in curbside recycling programs. It has also been deemed unsafe since it's been linked to the release of phthalates, which may harm human health.
PVC is found in many different parts of your home: backpacks, shoes, credit cards, window frames, appliances, shampoo bottles, and more. Even plastic wrap is commonly made out of PVC.
How to Avoid It: Opt for sustainable backpacks and shoes, buy natural shampoo, and use beeswax wrap instead of plastic wrap.
Type #4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is considered safe and is used in a range of items, from plastic bags to freezer goods.
In the past, it was tricky to curbside recycle these items, but it's becoming more accepted by recycling centers. Check to see if it's part of your curbside recycling program. If it's not, many grocery stores (including Target and Walmart) now have drop-off programs that accept plastic bags for recycling.
How to Avoid It: Skip the plastic grocery bags and use a reusable option that will last for years to come.
Type #5. Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene (PP) is considered one of the safest plastics and is FDA-approved for food contact. Because of that, it's often used for containers for yogurt, cream cheese, butter, and more.
Unfortunately, only 3% of these products get recycled in the United States. Check to see if it's accepted in your curbside recycling program. Or, find out if the company you buy from has a recycling program of its own.
How to Avoid It: Look for products from brands that offer more sustainable packaging. For example, Chobani is replacing some of its plastic packaging with paperboard. You can also make these items at home, like trying avocado butter instead of dairy butter.
Type #6. Polystyrene (PS)
Polystyrene (PS), trademarked as Styrofoam by Dow Chemical Company (kind of like how Band-Aid is a brand-specific product but is now synonymous with bandage), is among the worst of the bunch.
It's created from styrene, a likely human carcinogen. And it's not easily recyclable, which means things like takeout containers, disposable plates, coffee cups, and foam packaging tend to go straight to the landfill unless you can find a trusted drop-off location near you.
How to Avoid It: When you order takeout or take home leftovers, see if they can put it in your reusable container. And when you visit a coffee shop, bring a reusable cup like this option made from coffee husk.
Type #7: Miscellaneous/Other
The final type of plastic, miscellaneous, is the most complicated. It basically includes all the plastics that didn’t make the cut for the top six. This includes nylon, polycarbonates, and products like phone cases.
This plastic blend can't typically be recycled, but you can call and ask for specific instructions from the recycling center in your area.
How to Avoid It: When buying products, opt for plastic-free options or options that are recyclable. For example, choose a compostable phone case you know won't wind up in a landfill.