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.

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