How many times have you stood in your kitchen holding a plastic container in your hand and wondered, “Can I recycle this?” It’s frustrating trying to figure out which plastics can (and can’t) be recycled, especially because each city has its own rules.

But it’s worth figuring out, because as Americans we generate a lot of waste — more per capita than any nation on earth, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A growing part of this waste is plastics. We generated 33 million tons of plastic waste in 2013, which accounts for nearly 13 percent of all municipal solid waste, according to the EPA. In the1960s, plastics made up only 1 percent of the waste stream.

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We're also not doing a great job of recycling the plastic waste we produce. A glance at EPA statistics on recycling rates in 2013 also shows that plastics are less likely to be recycled than lead-acid batteries, steel cans, glass or even newspapers or tires:

  • Lead-Acid Batteries (car batteries): 99.0%
  • Steel Cans: 70.6%
  • Newspapers/Mechanical Papers: 67.0%
  • Yard Trimmings: 60.2%
  • Aluminum Beer and Soda Cans: 55.1%
  • Tires: 40.5%
  • Glass Containers: 34.0%
  • PET Bottles and Jars: 31.3%
  • Selected Consumer Electronics: 40.4%
  • HDPE Natural (White Translucent) Bottles: 28.2%

It’s good if we’re able to throw away less plastic, but in the classic recycling mantra — Reduce, Reuse and Recycle — it’s much better to reduce than recycle. 

“They’re made of fossil fuels, they contain toxic chemicals and they aren’t truly biodegradable,” says Jeannie Pham, program coordinator at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California. “There’s three good reasons to avoid plastics in everyday life."

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Recycling winners and losers

When you do end up with plastic waste, though, how (and where) can you recycle it? That depends on where you live, since the 8,000 recycling programs across the country vary wildly.

West Coast cities usually top the list of the best programs, most of which are in California. San Francisco boasts an 80 percent recycling rate for all waste, followed by Los Angeles (76.4 percent) and San Jose (75 percent), according to takepart.com, an environmental media portal. This isn’t surprising, since California has tough laws about cutting landfill shipments, and San Francisco has banned disposable plastic bags. Curbside recycling is also widespread.

Portland, Oregon is just behind the big three, with a recycling rate of 70 percent. 

At the bottom of the list is Oklahoma City (waste recycling rate: 3 percent), where residents have to pay a hefty fee for curbside recycling, according to Energy Digital, an online platform for energy news. Also on the website’s worst recycling cities list is Indianapolis (3.7 percent), Philadelphia (8.7) and Houston (9.4).

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By the numbers: How to recycle plastics

Here’s the secret: Check the numbers (ranging from 1 to 7) inside the identification triangle on each piece of plastic you want to recycle. The numbers are called Resin Identification Codes, but they don’t mean you can necessarily recycle the product.

According to the Ecology Center, the recycling triangles lead people to believe that all these plastic products are recyclable, but that’s not the case. Many are sorted out at the recycling center and sent packing — to the landfill.

Your best bet is to check your town's website on what's recyclable and what's not (or to contact your local recycling center online or by phone.) Another great resource is Earth911. You can visit its national online database, plug in the item you want to recycle and your city, and it will tell you whether and how you can recycle it.

What if you are still not sure? Pham says it’s best to give it a chance and toss it in the recycling bin. “If it goes to the recycling facility, a person or a machine can determine if it can be recycled,” she says.

Of course, this is time consuming and costly for the recycling center. So the better you get at knowing what can go in the bin, the healthier our recycling programs will be.

Below is the EPA’s breakdown of the different types of plastic. Numbers 1 and 2 are the types accepted by most recycling centers. Numbers 3 and 6 usually don’t make the cut, according to recycling groups. Again, check with your local recycling facility to find out which “numbers” you can recycle. 

RIC number
Found on:
1 (PET) Clear soda and water bottles, peanut butter jars, salad dressing bottles.
2 (HDPE) Usually opaque plastic: milk jugs, shampoo and detergent bottles, yogurt and butter tubs.
3 (PVC) Food wrap, cooking oil bottles, shampoo and detergent bottles, plumbing pipes.
4 (LDPE) Squeezable bottles, shopping bags, frozen food bags, bread bags and some food wraps.
5 (PP) Yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, syrup bottles and medicine bottles.
6 (PS) Styrofoam: egg cartons, meat trays and disposable plates and cups.
7 (All others) Anything from sunglasses to computer cases, nylon, and large water bottles.

A few other tips

To help keep plastic out of landfills, you may want to stop using:

  • Notoriously difficult-to-recycle plastics like Styrofoam. Although Styrofoam (technically speaking, expanded polystyrene foam) products often sport the recycling symbol, many cities do not recycle it because it’s contaminated by food.
  • Plastic cling wrap. Most plastic wrap can’t be recycled, and neither can pre-packaged food bags (like frozen food bags and the bags that pre-washed salad comes in) because they are also contaminated, according to the EPA.
  • Plastic grocery bags. Many recycling centers don’t take plastic grocery bags because they often get caught in the machinery. Some recycling centers will take them but want them bagged separately so they don’t get caught in the machines. Check with your local grocery store, since many accept plastic bags for recycling. Better yet, get sturdy reusable bags for shopping (just remember to wash them).

Finally, do wash out that peanut butter jar before tossing it into the recycling bin, so the people sorting out the trash won’t throw it into a pile marked for the landfill.

Related: Why You Should Break Your Bottled Water Habit

Mary Purcell is a freelance writer and health researcher in Piedmont, Calif., with expertise in policy analysis. She has a master's degree in Latin American studies from Georgetown University.