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it’s all in the numbers: deciphering the plastic recycling symbols

Photo by Bas Emmen 

Author: Josephine Agueci 

Confused about how recycling works? Us too. Especially when it comes to plastic (ew). Can yoghurt containers go in the blue bin? What about plastic wrap? Am I doing myself harm by reusing my ziplock bags?! bare market blogger Josephine is here to bust some recycling myths and to clear up what items can (and cannot) be reused and recycled.


In elementary school, we learned about the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling. We became familiar with the cute little triangle of arrows which indicated that the blue plastic container of our Dunkaroos snack could be recycled back into a new pack of dip-able cookies for more kids (…and, let’s be honest, adults) to enjoy (hooray!).

Obviously, the recycling process is not nearly as simple as it may have seemed back in the day – particularly when it comes to plastic!

In today’s society, plastic is used extensively and constitutes the vast majority of commercially available packaged products. What many people don’t realize, however, is that not all plastic is made equal. Some plastics can be recycled while others cannot; some plastics can be safely reused while others are said to release microplastics or harmful chemicals with continual use. But how can we tell the difference?

Well friends, it’s all in the numbers!

Photo by Peter Clarkson 

Ever noticed the little numbers inside the recycling symbols on many of your plastic products? This is called the Resin Identification Code, each of those numbers represents a particular plastic with a specific chemical composition. If we understand what each of these numbers means, it can help us determine whether or not a plastic can be recycled or safely reused, along with other characteristics such as toxicity levels.

Without further ado, here’s the inside scoop on the seven standard plastic classification numbers. In other words, here are the seven horcruxes of plastic (Get it? Because plastic is basically immortal? Mic drop.

(1)  PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

Plastic #1 is typically clear and is used in many disposable bottles, such as those holding water, pop, or household cleaning products.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Yes! This plastic can be picked up by the majority of curbside recycling programs.

Can it be reused? Plastic #1 is porous, which can allow bacteria and flavoring to accumulate. Additionally, bottles made of this plastic can potentially leach carcinogenic chemicals into its contents when exposed to heat. It is relatively safe for reuse when compared to other plastics, but the above points should be taken into consideration before doing so.

(2)  HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

Plastic #2 is typically opaque and is used for containers such as shampoo bottles, yogurt tubs, and milk jugs.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Yes! This plastic can be picked up by the majority of curbside recycling programs.

Can it be reused? Sure. Plastic #2 is considered one of the safer plastics when it comes to reusability due to its low risk of leaching.

(3)  PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

Plastic #3 is used for items such as plumbing pipes, garden hoses, food wrap, and some detergent bottles. Many have dubbed it the “poison plastic” as it contains several harmful toxins that have a high risk of leaching, such as phthalates or DEHA.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Nope. This plastic is rarely accepted by roadside recycling programs.

Can it be reused? No way! Plastic #3 should not be heated, cooked with or reused. However, some products composed of it can be repurposed if not used for applications relating to food or children.

(4)  LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

Plastic #4 constitutes items such as grocery bags, squeezable bottles, bread bags, and frozen food packaging.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Not everywhere, but yes in Toronto (as long as it’s clean)!

Can it be reused? Sure. This plastic is considered relatively safe and is not known to leach any harmful chemicals.

(5)  PP (Polypropylene)

Plastic #5 is relatively lightweight, strong, and heat-resistant and is used for products that keep foods dry and fresh (such as chip bags and cereal box liners), along with “microwave safe” plastic containers.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Not everywhere, but yes in Toronto (as long as it is clean)!

Can it be reused? Although Plastic #5 is heat resistant, it is not necessarily completely safe to consume food that has been heated in it. Some studies have shown this plastic to leach chemicals when heated, but it is otherwise considered safe for reuse.

(6)  PS (Polystyrene)

Plastic #6 is styrofoam, used for products such as egg cartons, meat trays, and disposable cups and food containers.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Not typically, but yes in Toronto. This one is especially difficult to recycle. When not recycled, it can take hundreds of years to decompose! Additionally, due to its structural weakness, it easily breaks up and disperses throughout the natural environment, contaminating beaches and is often ingested by marine organisms.

Can it be reused? Reusing should be avoided when it comes to storing food, as Plastic #6 is known to release chemicals such as styrene, which is a human carcinogen. Styrofoam should never be heated and should be avoided whenever possible.

(7)  Other

A plastic marked as Plastic #7 are products made with a combination of any of the above plastics or from a resin other than the main six. Polycarbonate falls within this category. It contains BPA, a chemical that has been linked to a variety of negative health effects and continues to be studied.

Can it be recycled in Toronto? Nope!

Can it be reused? Products made from this plastic should be avoided wherever possible, as their composition can vary and their safety is not completely understood.

Does that make things a little clearer? For those plastic items that you wish to reuse, the typical rule of thumb is that the safest plastics for doing so are Plastics # 2, #4, and #5.

Avoiding plastics and finding alternatives, whenever possible, is always the best option (that’s what Bare Market is here for!). With any disposable plastic products that you do use, be sure to clean them properly so that they actually get recycled rather than ending up in landfills.

Always be sure to read the label and do some research to ensure that you are recycling correctly!


About the author: Josephine Agueci is a third year student at McMaster University studying Honours Earth and Environmental Sciences with a Minor in Sustainability. She is passionate about environmental education and believes that sustainable living is a never-ending process - there are always new opportunities for growth and improvement! She’s incredibly excited to be involved with bare market and the beautiful community it is creating.

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