National Waste & Recycling Association

The National Waste & Recycling Association is the trade association that represents the private sector solid waste and recycling industry. Visit and learn more the Association at wasterecycling.org.

Begin with the Bin is a public education resource developed by the National Waste & Recycling Association.

The National Waste & Recycling Association is located at:
4301 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20008
T: 800-424-2869, 202-244-4700
F: 202-966-4824
E: info@wasterecycling.org
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Media: Jessica Mayorga at 202-364-3706 or jmayorga@wasterecycling.org.

Begin with the Bin

Begin with the Bin is a public education resource developed by the National Waste & Recycling Association. The site offers information and resources related to the waste and recycling industries. Visit and learn more at beginwiththebin.org.

Recycling Plastics

What do you need to know about recycling plastics?

FACT: An empty 1-gallon HDPE plastic milk jug weighs less than 60 grams, compared to 95 grams in 1970.

Plastic is an indispensable part of everyday life, yet we may not realize how often we see them throughout our day.  Our nation's recycling infrastructure has grown significantly since the early days of plastics recycling in the 1970s.  This growth includes innovations across product manufacturing and recovery technologies.  Today, 92%[1] of U.S. households have access to some sort of organized plastic recycling program, while nearly all Americans have access to recyclable drop-off points. In 2014, the United States generated nearly of plastic materials and 3.0 million tons of that was recycled.[1]

Plastics recycling enable manufacturers to use more recycled plastics in their products and packaging, and it helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy use while diverting valuable resources from landfill. So it’s important for individuals, businesses and communities to understand how plastic recycling works.

Plastic recycling programs vary from community to community, and the type of plastics accepted for recycling can be different. Most communities ask for plastics by shape, such as bottles, jugs, cups, containers, caps and lids. It is important to take note of the types of plastics accepted in your area. Sometimes these also can be identified by the “Resin Identification Code” (e.g., #2 bottles or #5 containers.) This code is a stamped or printed number found on the bottom of plastic containers and surrounded by chasing arrows.  Check with your local solid waste disposal or recycling provider to know what plastics are accepted in your area.

The two most-often recycled plastics are:

  • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (#2): bottles for milk and other beverages, detergents, shampoos, motor oil, drugs and cosmetic products.
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (#1): bottles for soft drinks, bottled water and other household and consumer products.

Other rigid plastic containers (tubs, trays, and lids) are being accepted in an increasing number of plastic recycling programs today. Polypropylene (PP) (#5) is one of the fastest growing recycled commodities in the U.S[2]. During re-processing, plastics are cleaned, melted and re-extruded and then used to create second-generation products ranging from reusable kitchen tools to new packaging, clothing and carpeting.  Plastics makers, brand owners, recyclers, communities and nonprofits are working together to increase opportunities to recycle more plastics.  Much of their work is based on technology development, municipal programs and partnerships, and consumer education.

Reducing Food Waste with Plastic

Our friends at Plastics Make it Possible® teamed up with celebrity chef and television personality Duff Goldman to show how easy it is to reduce food waste using plastic packaging, storage containers, and zipper bags. By helping to keep oxygen away from food, plastics help food stay fresher longer.

Food waste is a huge problem.  More than 40 percent of U.S. food supply is wasted every year. Just imagine all the time, energy, and resources involved in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing and serving that food. And then imagine simply throwing nearly half of it all away. What a waste. And imagine the impact on the environment. How is this sustainable?

  • Vegetables in a bag: no waste, lasts longer than unprotected greens that will be thrown out. Modified air packaging keeps oxygen away from fresh foods.
  • A cucumber wrapped in thin, lightweight plastic wrap might seem silly, but without plastics a cucumber lasts three days; with plastics it lasts two weeks or more.
  • Red peppers, carrots, etc., in plastic wrap or produce bags last longer in the grocery store and fridge.
  • Even proteins such as chicken, beef, fish, and tofu are protected by lightweight plastics that extend their shelf life and help prevent wasted food.
  • All sorts of foods come in lightweight plastic packaging, and more and more are being recycled every year.
  • When you do have extras or leftovers, choosing the right packaging is key.
  • This specially designed plastic container keeps produce fresher longer. It has a vent that allows produce to breathe, as well as a tray that separates it from moisture so my vegetables last longer.
  • For extra fruits and vegetables and most other foods, zipper bags that remove most of the air can save a lot of food, both in the fridge and freezer.
  • And I can’t imagine a kitchen without lightweight plastic cling wrap to protect everything from onions to cupcakes.
  • All the ingredients in this stir-fry were protected by just a little bit of lightweight plastics. It helps our bottom line and the environment.
  • Plastic packaging is really an investment in our food and all the resources we use to produce it.

What do I do?

Once you know what types of plastics your recycling program accepts, you should follow the “wash and squash” rule—rinse the plastic container before placing in the bin. And don’t forget to twist caps back on bottles and snap lids on containers. Caps and are widely recycled, and lids are recycled more and more frequently. Paper labels can remain on containers.

Flexible plastic wraps and bags (also known as “film,”) are widely recycled across the U.S., but they don’t belong in your curbside bin. Instead, you can bring them to any one of more than 18,000 grocery and retail stores across the country. Include bags from grocery and retail stores, bread, produce and dry cleaning; shipping pillows; bubble wrap; and wraps from napkins, bathroom tissue, diapers and large beverage cases.  

Contaminating the recycling stream is costly for recyclers and might cause valuable recyclable materials to be sent to landfill. Resist the temptation to slip plastics or anything else that recyclers don’t want into your recycling bin. 

How does it work?

The plastic recycling process is simple. The used plastics are washed and chopped into flakes. If mixed plastics are being recycled, they are placed in a flotation tank, where some types of plastic sink and others float. The plastic flakes are dried in a tumble dryer and then fed into an extruder, where heat and pressure melt the plastic. The molten plastic is forced through a fine screen to remove any contaminants and then formed into strands. These plastic strands are cooled in water and then chopped into uniform pellets. Manufacturing companies buy the plastic pellets from recyclers to make new products.

Used plastics that aren’t recycled also can be converted into energy, fuels and chemical feedstocks.

The Numbers: Plastics

  • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Bottles in 2014: [1] Pounds recycled= 1.1 billion3, recycling rate= 33.6%4, Americans with access to a recycling program= 92%5. 
  • Other rigid plastics in 2014: pounds recycled= 1.3 billion pounds6, Americans with access to a recycling program varies (Bottle caps; PP cups, containers and clamshells), LDPE/LLDPE tubs, PS containers are all over 60%7).
  • PE wraps and bags (i.e., "film"): pounds recycled= 1.2 billion8, recycling rate= 17%9, Americans with access to a recycling program via local grocery and retail stores=72%+10.
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Bottles Generated in 2011[2]: 2.79 million tons / Recycled: 859,000 tons (30.8%)
  • Source Reduction: An empty 1-gallon HDPE plastic milk jug weighs less than 60 grams, compared to 95 grams in 1970.
  • Source Reduction: A 2-liter PET plastic soft drink bottle weighs 48 grams, compared to 68 grams 20 years ago.[3][4][5]