taming the plastic monster…
and decoding those recycling numbers

Recyling Pile

Plastic is pretty much everywhere we go. It’s easy, it’s convenient, it’s cheap… and it’s about as bad for the environment as it can possibly be. Going completely plastic free is an admirable goal, but for most of us, it’s a daunting task. We like little steps – simple, easy things that anyone can do to make their world just a little bit greener. Here are just a few (almost) painless ways you can reduce the plastics in your life.

  • Switch to reusable bottles and cups
    This is an easy one – replace bottled water with a reusable bottle, and bring in your own reusable cup to your favorite coffee house.
  • Ditch the throw-away kitchen containers
    Exchange the plastic food containers for glass, metal or at least recycled plastics. While you’re at, repurpose any existing containers you have – that empty salsa jar is perfect to hold leftover spaghetti sauce!
  • Say no to plasticware
    No one likes plastic forks anyway… Carry your own reusable or biodegradable utensils and just say “no” to the plastic stuff.
  • Skip the straw
    Surprise! You can skip the straw, too. Either sip from the glass, or carry your own stainless or glass straw.
  • Pack your own produce
    You’re already carrying a reusable grocery bag, so add a few reusable produce bags while you’re at it and skip the plastic versions at the store.
  • Spit out the gum
    Gum used to be made with a natural product, but most gums today are made chewy thanks to plastics.
  • Buy into smart packaging
    Pick up laundry detergent, soaps and other products in recyclable cardboard or paper containers instead of big plastic bottles.
  • Buy in bulk
    Skip packaging entirely and buy products in bulk. Yes, that means skipping the plastic bulk bags as well by bringing your own.
  • Use matches
    Want to light a candle? Reach for a match instead of one of those day-glow plastic lighters.
  • Skip the freezer section
    Most of the food in the freezer section is not only full of sodium, it’s also wrapped in multiple layers of packaging, including lots of plastic. Skip it and buy fresh.
  • Use cloth diapers
    This one’s an oldie, but a goodie. Disposable diapers are simply not environmentally friendly. Switch to cloth or look for plastic-free disposables.
  • Give up bottled juice
    Either make your own (mmm, fresh squeezed OJ!) or eat a piece of fruit instead. It’s healthier and you’ll be saving on all that packaging.
  • Pack a smart lunch
    Revamp your lunchbox with reusable sandwich wraps, glass or metal containers and reusable utensils and napkins.
  • Clean the green way
    Look for eco-friendly cleaning products packaged in recycled (and recyclable) containers. Or make your own.
  • Bring your own takeout container
    This one’s a little tougher, but instead of getting a Styrofoam or plastic takeout container, bring your own and ask the restaurant to package your food in it. Most will be more than willing.
  • Reuse/return plastic produce containers
    If you shop a small grocer or farmer’s market, ask if you can return and reuse the plastic tubs that hold things like berries and cherry tomatoes.

So you’ve got plastic to recycle, some of it’s easy, but some of it can be downright confusing. If the plastic has a number on it, it’s easy to figure out how to handle it.

Plastics #1 through #7 

#1 PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate). Typical soda bottles, most curbside recycling will take these. Recycled into polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps and sometimes new containers.

#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene). Common in milk and water jugs as well as detergent and toiletries bottles and most butter tubs, usually picked up in most curbside recycling. Recycled into: laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables and fencing.

#3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Common in food wrap, cooking oil bottles and plumbing, rarely acceptable at curbside, but may be accepted by some facilities and plastic lumber makers. Recycled into: decks, paneling, mud flaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps and mats.

#4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene).Found in grocery bags, some food wraps, squeezable bottles and bread bags, seldom accepted at curbside, however some stores will accept plastic bags and some facilities have special programs for them. Heavier items can be recycled into: trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties and floor tile.

#5 (polypropylene). Common in yogurt cups and similar containers, medicine bottles, ketchup, syrup bottles and straws, usually recycled through curbside programs. Recycled into: signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets and trays.

#6 (polystyrene). AKA Styrofoam, not usually picked up and rarely recycled.

#7 (miscellaneous). Found in three- and five-gallon water bottles, “bulletproof” materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers and nylon. Most of these plastics are not recycled in curbside pickup programs.

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