How Many Times Can Plastic Be Recycled?

The seven types of plastic vary in their recycling potential.

Person placing empty water bottle in a full recycling box

Songsak rohprasit / Getty Images

Plastic can be recycled one to 10 times, depending on the type, although most can be recycled only once. Postconsumer plastic is often turned into synthetic fibers, plastic lumber, insulation, and containers—whatever it becomes, though, will inevitably be a lower-quality item than the original product, hence why it's called "downcycling."

Because the heating process shortens polymer chains, thus degrading plastic quality, a water bottle can't simply reincarnate as another water bottle—or anything food-grade, per stringent packaging requirements. However, some plastics have more recycling potential than others. 

According to the ASTM International D7611 Standard, plastics can be classified into seven types, identifiable by a resin code in the center of the familiar embossed triangle. Here's a rundown of the recyclability of each.

Plastic #1 PET

Person with arms full of empty water bottles

Sally Anscombe / Getty Images

Polyethylene terephthalate, abbreviated PET or PETE, is commonly used for drink bottles and food containers. Although the recycling rate for PET plastic bottles in the U.S. is a meager 29.1%, this category is regarded as highly recyclable compared to other types—it's picked up by most curbside programs and able to withstand the recycling process several times, depending on what it becomes in its postconsumer life. 

When PET plastic is turned into a non-food container, it may be able to endure a second or third round of recycling, but when it's spun into polyester fiber—most often the case—then it becomes more difficult to recycle because large-scale postconsumer textile recycling doesn't currently exist. 

Plastic #2 HDPE

High-density polyethylene is used to make bottles for beverages, personal hygiene products, motor oils, and laundry detergent. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it's recycled slightly more frequently than PET plastic (29.3% versus 29.1% of the time). HDPE plastics are picked up by most curbside recycling programs and often turned into pens, plastic lumber, plumbing pipes, and toys. Its thickness and durability make it easier to withstand the recycling process repeatedly.

In an experiment testing the recyclability of HDPE, ESE World B.V., a European manufacturer of waste and recycling storage systems, reportedly found that HDPE can be recycled 10 times; however, the study was conducted under highly controlled conditions that don't mimic mainstream recycling systems.

Plastic #3 PVC

Polyvinyl chloride—the stuff faux leather, vinyl flooring, and shrink wrap is made of—is not as commonly recycled. It's more challenging to break down for reprocessing because it's composed of so many different compounds and additives. Some sophisticated processes can separate these compounds and make new PVC for things like pipes, carpet backing, and fencing, but the difficulty and complexity of this process make it unlikely that the compounds would be strong enough to withstand recycling more than once.

Plastic #4 LDPE 

Person throwing plastic bags in a yellow bin

Seamind Panadda / EyeEm / Getty Images

Low-density polyethylene is the dreaded "single-use" soft plastic that often winds up in the ocean, where marine life tragically mistake it for food. Grocery bags, sandwich bags, and cling wrap are made from it, and these items are not commonly accepted by curbside services, but an increasing number of supermarket drop-off programs are cropping up around the country. Typically, LDPE can be recycled only once because the quality is so degraded it can only be used for carpet treatment, trash can liners, and other single-use items.

Plastic #5 PP

Polypropylene is what hard prescription bottles, deodorant containers, medical equipment, and bottle caps are made of. According to AZoCleantech, a trade publication for the clean technology industry, PP can be recycled four times—into clothing fibers, brooms, garden rakes, and the like—however, only about 1% of it gets recycled despite 72% of Americans having access to PP bottle, jug, and jar recycling and 47% having access to PP cup, bowl, and tray recycling. Though it isn't as widely accepted by curbside services as, say, PET and HDPE, PP can be mailed into Preserve, a company that recycles #5 plastics via its Gimme 5 program.

Plastic #6 PS

Styrofoam food boxes stacked in the trash at park

wingedwolf / Getty Images

Polystyrene, the category that contains Styrofoam, is widely considered the least planet-friendly plastic. This is the material that disposable cups, takeout food containers, egg cartons, and packing peanuts are made of. Traditional PS is not recyclable because it's formed from a liquid hydrocarbon that can't be broken down by standard recycling methods and is too costly to process; however, expanded polystyrene (EPS), a rigid cellular plastic used for building insulation and electronics packaging, is. 

EPS is not accepted by most curbside recycling services, but you can search for a local drop-off location on Earth911. Postconsumer EPS is often made into plastic lumber and molding trim, so it can be recycled typically only once.

Plastic #7 Other

Resin code #7 is used for miscellaneous plastics like polycarbonate (PC), used for CDs, laptop screens, and shatterproof windows, and polylactide (PLA), a biodegradable "plastic" made from corn starch or sugar cane. Not many curbside services will pick up #7 because it's such a catch-all category. (Some do, though, so check with your local solid waste management office.) Certain types, like PC, can be recycled, but others, like PLA, can't be. The good news is that PLA is compostable in some facilities—just look for the PLA code under the chasing arrows.

Tips for Reducing Plastic Pollution

  • Know the seven resin codes and which can be recycled. Recycling something that isn't recyclable or sorting incorrectly can contaminate a whole batch of otherwise good recycling and cause it to be rejected. Make a note near your home recycling of which plastics your curbside service accepts.
  • The most eco-friendly next step is to reuse your plastic waste, so turn bottles and jars into storage containers, seed starter pots, and more.
  • Always remove caps before recycling bottles and dispose of them properly.
  • Choose transparent plastics over colors—they're generally preferred and have the highest material value because they can be dyed. The next best color is white.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What should you do with soft plastics?

    Soft plastics can be recycled through special programs like Plastic Film Recycling and TerraCycle. Many supermarkets now serve as drop-off locations. Use Earth911 to find a collection bin near you.

  • Is recycled plastic sustainable?

    Recycled plastic is eco-friendlier than virgin plastic because it diverts waste from landfills. But recycled plastic is not sustainable because it relies entirely on the continuous production of plastic, which is tremendously polluting.

  • What happens to plastic that goes into the trash?

    Plastic that goes in the trash is either sent to landfills or incinerated. Both have foul effects on the environment. In landfills, plastic can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down. Incineration, on the other hand, releases toxic, climate-warming chemicals into the environment.

View Article Sources
  1. "ASTM D7611 / D7611M-20, Standard Practice for Coding Plastic Manufactured Articles for Resin Identification." ASTM International, 2020., doi:10.1520/D7611_D7611M-20

  2. "Plastics: Material-Specific Data." Environmental Protection Agency.

  3. "Types of Plastic." Illinois Department of Central Management Services.

  4. "HDPE Multiple Recycling Proven in an Experiment." ESE World B.V.

  5. "Centralized Study on Availability of Recycling." Sustainable Packaging Coalition, 2021, pp. 17-18.

  6. "Recycling of Polypropylene (PP)." AZoCleantech.