How to recycle plastic, or, Curse You, ubiquitous arrow symbol!

Post 1 in Tiny Planet’s Recycling Series

Tiny Planet’s mission is to encourage practical, social and environmental actions. In that spirit the objective of this series of posts is to explain some of the confusing components of recycling as it is handled in the world and the USA in general, with examples of recycling in practice in my home base of beautiful Frederick County Maryland. Each post in this series tackles one sub-topic, with permanent information (links to municipal resources, etc.) on our new Recycling Page.

To begin with a word:

Identifying plastic for recycling

Labels follow plastics from the first chemical equation to the landfill or the recycle stream.

Particularly this one, the Chasing Arrows:

Ubiquitous Chasing Arrow Symbol
We know this as the recycling symbol. However, for plastics, the chasing arrows with a number inside have a different meaning.

Plastics are categorized by their chemical (resin) components. Manufacturers label them with numbers, which are commonly seen on products we use everyday, such as drink bottles and food containers. The numbers range from 1 to 7, and are called Resin Identification Codes (RIC).

RIC Recycling Numbers on Plastic Products

Recycling symbols are embossed on a variety of common household items with no other explanation, implying all number 1 items are the same. They are not!

Recycling symbols with a number surrounded by the Chasing Arrows are common. The implication is that all number 1 recyclables are the same. They are not.
Resin Identification Codes (RIC)

In the 1980’s manufacturers put the chasing arrows around the RIC so that professionals in the plastics industry could use them. They were not originally created to directly aid consumers.

While the base chemistry is the same for all number 1 plastics, the manufacturing process adds other chemicals to aid in the specific use. For example, the same plastic for your water bottle (you aren’t still buying those?) which is recyclable, may be coated with another chemical for the clam shell box holding your strawberries. They may each be labeled number 1 with the chasing arrows but the added chemical on the clam shell makes recycling them a problem for many facilities.

Why and how recyclables are sorted

All recycling facilities have some limit on which materials they can process

The following sample of guidelines for recyclables illustrates that there may be fewer items that can be recycled by your local recycle program than you think, but they also mean your recycling can be more successful and that is the goal. The more success we all have in recycling the more people join in the effort. For other items there are recycle options, which will be covered in a separate post.

Category 1 Plastic, when used for beverage bottles can be recycled; when used for clam shell fruit or vegetable boxes can not, because of the coating used on such food containers.

Your local recycling service has to get these instructions to you in the most efficient way possible. The most practical way is to emphasize “recycle by shape”.

Finer details are often the smaller details, recycle same materials together; different materials separately.

Lids and containers of the same material should be connected. Lids of different material should be thrown away.


Plastic lids should be attached to their plastic bottle; if not screwed on they are too light for the processing stream and can blow off sorting tables, slowing the work flow or causing hazards in the recycling facility.

Glass bottles with metal lids—the glass bottle should be put into the recycle bin; the metal lid put in separately if large, or thrown in the trash if small.

recycle glass bottles

While my writing on municipal recycling is focused on where I live, Frederick County, Maryland, you, dear reader, should have little trouble finding a listing of your local recycling options. A quick search online for “county recycling in your state” is an efficient start to getting answers for your household or business.

Links to Frederick County Recycling information

Frederick County has a great Recycling section on their website.

News and ongoing recycle options

In Frederick County, Maryland, the rules for plastic bags and packaging are changing. In spring 2019 Frederick Co will no longer collect plastic bags such as grocery bags. The County website will post this decision once it is official.

Plastic bags are recyclable and can be dropped off at specific locations. Check out the Plastic Film Recycling website for options.

Good news

Styrofoam is on the way out. It is taking its sweet, icky time but as a pretty hopeless, nonredeemable product it is being voting out of use in legislatures around the USA. The Maryland State Legislature has passed a bill on this issue.


Recycle like you mean it, Everyday successful Reduce Reuse Recycle Tactics.

Is there really anything better that feeling as though your house is in order? Your home, town, country, planet.

The everyday experience of dealing with your stuff, if you are a typical American consumer of electronics, toiletries, and packaged goods, is that you have a weekly average amount of many recyclables; yearly you may have one, two or more electronic items to dispose of. While reducing the packaging in the manufacture pipeline is ideal, our immediate power as consumers is in how we buy and how we dispose of consumables. Taking care of these daily life recyclables is the front line of the effect you have on our world.

I write this as an American, living in Frederick County, Maryland which puts my experience in one of the most resource rich places anywhere. While there is an enormous array of recycling procedures around the country, the system we have here in Frederick is a great model of single stream recycling for the average household. Combine that with local businesses that have added specialty recycle collection to their services, and even made it their business model, it is clear that Frederick County is moving the basic tasks of life toward sustainable living for everyone.

Things that work for our household:

The following work for me and my household but are not endorsements, you need to find what resources work for you.

First step: Your town has trash and recycling pick up; there will be a list of what is recyclable and what can be rejected.
In Frederick, the County Government Website has clearly listed recycle terms and pick up times.

Second step: The effort needed to get specific recyclables to the right processor.
It is pretty easy to take recyclables to the curb for routine pick up. What is not so easy is finding a recycling venue when you need it—specifically, when and where is it practical to drop off your stuff?

So what works here in Frederick County, Md? For me it is having a short list of places that are on my general route for errands around town. And yes I put that list on my fridge on paper. Scrap paper.

Here is a big shout out to two businesses that make it easier for me to recycle everyday items that we all would like to keep out of a landfill. It is pretty challenging to find a convenient “specialized” recycle center for items such as batteries, light bulbs (of various sorts), electronics, toothpaste tubes. The following two businesses are in close proximity and that means combined errands in one trip.


e-End electronics recycling collection event. Photo courtesy of e-End.
e-End electronics recycling collection event. Photo courtesy of e-End.
e-end recycyling

e-End is certified to dispose of electronic waste in an environmentally safe manner—cell phones, laptops, etc. and will also certify that the hard drive has been shredded for secure disposal. Their location at 7118 Geoffrey Way Unit E Frederick, MD 21704 is easy to find and there are no parking problems while you unload your beloved dinosaurs.

Here is a list of items e-End accepts.

Also, look for the e-End “Small Electronics Recycling Drop-off Bin” now available at Common Market.


My Organic Market Recycling Center
My Organic Market Recycling Center. Photo courtesy of MOM’s.

I absolutely love the recycle bins set up at MOM’s. They cover the odd stuff like toothpaste tubes, snack bags, Brita filters. Once a year they have a denim drive. The MOM’s Recycle Center page explains it nicely.

Located at: 5273 Buckeystown Pike Frederick, MD 21703

More Options:

Many other businesses provide recycling of specific items. Common Market, Lowes, Staples to name a few. Tip for Online list’s: These change but once you find one how do you keep track? Keep a list on the fridge of ones that suit you, and yes, you do need to check on them from time to time. Most recyclable recipients post current recycling terms on their company website and a search this website feature; simply type recycling into the Search Box. If there is none call the company, have a conversation with a person.

Need more options? Try an online search for the item you wish to recycle or try Earth911.

Trash Matters.

Lastly, a note about the value of recycling. Do you know that recycling is a multi-billion dollar global industry. At the time of writing this post I have been reading of a growing trend in the global recycle stream which has been building for more than a few years now.

China no longer wants all of our trash.

Because recycled material becomes raw material for new products, that means more manufacturing opportunity here in the USA.
For a really great read about the economics of the global recycling—aka “junkyard”—economy try Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter, Bloomsbury Press; 1 edition (November 12, 2013).

Minter clearly describes the global value of our recyclables, billions annually, and the impact on local environments around the world.
Other countries see our scrap as raw material. A prime buyer of US scrap and recycled material of all sorts has been China. In recent years China has been slowing, perhaps stopping, these purchases. What this will mean for cost of imported goods and manufactured goods in the US time will tell. The real bottom line is that recycling does affect all of us and there will always be a part for you to play.