How to properly recycle plastic

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Make sure you’re recycling the right way.


Alina Bradford/CNET

This story is part of Road Trip 2020, CNET’s series on how we’re preparing now for what could come next.

Recycling is an excellent way to help the environment — if it’s done correctly. Simply tossing all of your plastics into the recycling bin isn’t the way to go. Instead, you need to know which plastics are recyclable and which should be tossed in the trash. But once you’ve learned these important details, you’ll be helping to reduce waste.

Plastic that isn’t recycled is either put in landfills, incinerated or 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.

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How to recycle plastic

Recycling plastic is 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 entire 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. In fact, 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,” then it must be composted and not recycled.

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


Amanda Capritto/CNET

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 “plastic products would not be a problem if we reused them.”
  • Remember that styrofoam isn’t recyclable and that includes egg cartons, packaging and peanuts. If you have quite a bit of styrofoam lying around your house, contact schools in your area to see if they can use it for projects.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.



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