Is Plastic Number 2 HDPE Recyclable? (Read This Before Tossing It In The Recycling Bin)
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Is Plastic Number 2 Recyclable? (Read This Before Tossing It In The Recycling Bin)

When it comes to plastics, we want to do the right thing and recycle. However, knowing what can and can’t be recycled isn’t always clear. For example, what is number 2 plastic, and can it be safely recycled?

Plastic number 2 is recyclable, just be sure to rinse off any food before placing it into a recycling bin. This rigid plastic is used in containers like milk cartons, and it’s easy to recycle since it’s accepted virtually anywhere. Recycled number 2 plastic (also known as HDPE : High Density Polyethylene) is usually used to make outdoor products.

Today, most of us have access to a container where we can place all recyclables without having to sort them. Even so, too much plastic is winding up in landfills and waterways. In this post, I’ll explain how and where to recycle number 2 plastic and whether or not you can reuse it.

Is Number 2 Plastic Recyclable?

Not only is number 2 plastic recyclable, it’s also one of the most frequently recycled  plastics. Since the process for recycling number 2 plastic is easy and cost-effective, recycling facilities accept nearly all forms of this plastic, except for grocery bags and plastic wrap.

Many recyclable household plastics (including bags) are made from number 2 plastics, often recycled at home.

However, many recyclers don’t accept bags made from number 2 plastic. These bags are difficult to clean and often snag other items when someone attempts to take them out of recycling bins. Because of these characteristics, they’re a common source of pollutants in commingled recycling.

Still, even if the bags can be removed, few recyclers are willing to buy them. This has forced cities and counties not only to remove the bags, but also throw them into the trash.

To avoid this, it’s best to bring your own bags or ask for paper bags, which can be recycled.

Grocery stores often rely on plastic bags to save money and speed customers through check-out, so they usually don’t offer paper bags. Luckily, more retailers offer a small discount if you bring your bags.

Recycling Symbol 2, What Does It Mean?

Recycling symbol 2 means the plastic is High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), a material that may be reused and recycled up to 10 times. HDPE plastic has many highly desirable properties; It’s strong, durable, and long-lasting, but also light and flexible enough to be formed into almost any shape.

HDPE isn’t as clear as number 1 plastic, but it’s translucent enough to see what’s inside. It is also available in opaque version.

Although, HDPE can endure higher temperatures than number 1 plastic, and it’s resistant to chemicals, so it won’t react with stored foods, beverages, or household chemicals.

This kind of polyethylene is derived from ethane, a natural gas. The molecules of ethane break apart when heated (a process called cracking) to 1500˚ Fahrenheit (815˚ C).

One of the molecules created by this process is the gas Ethylene. It’s transformed into a resin during the polymerization process which is then combined with other materials to create High-Density Polyethylene (or HDPE).

This Plastic Can Be Found in Items Like:

HDPE can be found in rigid plastics, like milk jugs and detergent bottles, among other things, and soft and flexible products like grocery bags. Although most of them are for household use, recycled number 2 plastics have many non-household uses. 

Most HDPE plastics are rigid. These include the following:

Some HDPE plastics are flexible, including these:

  • Bags—including grocery, shopping, bread, and garbage bags
  • Cereal box liners
  • Plastic envelopes for mailing and some commercial packaging

Remember, though, that unless your city or county expressly accepts flexible number 2 plastics, they shouldn’t be put in with rigid plastics.

How and Where To Recycle It?

Most recycle programs allow number 1 and number 2 plastics to be recycled together. Plastics for food products should be cleaned off completely and placed into your household bin or local drop-off location. Overall, your city or county’s website is the best resource for knowing what’s accepted.

It’s essential to follow the guidelines your local waste management system provides. For example, some localities accept bottles with lids while others don’t. Their function is to process and sell the plastic. These contracts include stipulations for the type of material that the processor will accept.

Please take a minute or two to visit your city or county’s recycling website to familiarize you with their do’s and don’ts. There isn’t one simple answer for how and where to recycle HDPE plastic. Your city or county might have different rules about how and what to accept, and those rules can change.

Number 2 plastic needs to be recycled because it takes so long to degrade in the environment. If plastic bottles take an estimated 450 years to break down, we need to do all we can to ensure they’re properly recycled.

What Is Plastic 2 Recycled Into?

Plastic 2 is usually recycled into products for outdoor use. This durable plastic can withstand outdoor weather, so it’s often used to make deck chairs, “wood” used for raised beds, and fake grass. Toys and playground equipment are also made from number 2 plastic, as are some pipes and floor tiles.

Typically, plastic 2 is recycled into new items based on color. In addition, some containers are recycled to create new containers, which can be recycled up to 10 times before the plastic is too degraded to reuse.

Can Plastic Number 2 Be Reused?

Plastic number 2 can be reused safely. Although, a plastic bottle reused many times can develop scratches or tiny cracks. To prevent bacterial growth, wash them thoroughly before storing food or liquid in them.

Number two bottles used for items like detergents can also be reused, but you probably don’t want to drink water that has been stored in a bottle that once contained laundry detergent because of the ingredients used to make the detergent.

Still, according to The American Chemistry Council and other health experts, high-density polyethylene plastics manufactured into opaque bottles used for food and drink products like milk, juice, yogurt, and margarine tubs don’t leach cancer-causing chemicals.

Is Number 2 Plastic Dangerous to My Health?

Number 2 plastic isn’t believed to be dangerous to your health. Research suggests the risk of chemicals leaching into HDPE plastics is extremely low. Nonetheless, number 2 plastic does contain nonylphenol, a compound known to disrupt the hormonal system of aquatic life.

Nonylphenol can affect your endocrine system. However, there’s currently no proof that the compound leeches out of number 2 bottles, nor is there evidence to suggest that it could. It’s for these reasons the risk is considered low.

In addition, HDPE plastics are not affected by heat. For example, number 1 (or PET or PETE) containers have antimony, a semi-metal that can be harmful when levels become toxic. Antimony can leach out when the bottle is exposed to high temperatures.

Can I Microwave My Food in Number 2 Plastic Containers?

You can microwave food in number 2 plastic containers (with the exception of vintage plastic storage containers) since this type of plastic doesn’t contain Phthalates or BPA; However, glass or ceramic containers are preferred. Notably, some plastic containers can melt when heated in the microwave, so it’s essential to know which ones are safe to use.

In addition, some plastics contain BPA or phthalates to make them flexible. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, phthalates, like BPA, seep into meals, especially when containers are heated.

How Can I Reuse My Plastic Bottles?

Plastic bottles can be reused in creative ways you might not have considered, such as making planters and bird feeders or for various storage. Sometimes it makes more sense to reuse or up-cycle plastics, and you can find many project ideas on the internet.

For example, cities or counties sometimes stop accepting certain recyclables due to various circumstances. If that is the case, you can use the plastics creatively.

Here are some more DIY projects to keep you busy reusing plastic:

How Are Manufacturers Making More Eco-Friendly Plastic?

Manufacturers are responding to calls for more eco-friendly plastics by using bio-composites and ocean plastics. Besides being good for the environment, manufacturers can save money and create improved products.

Oceanworks acts as a marketplace that sells recycled materials gathered around waterways (oceans, lakes, streams, for example). The company collects verified waste plastics (including HDPE) and sells them to manufacturers who then use them to create recycled plastics.

Bio-composite plastics reduce how much plastic is used in a product by renewable plant materials like hemp, cotton, rice, or flax. Not only do these additions reduce the amount of plastic used, but many of them also increase the product’s strength. Hemp, for example, is twice as strong as the polypropylene used in plastics.

Who Created High-Density Polyethylene?

High-Density Polyethylene was created in the 1950s by Karl Ziegler. His goal was to create a stronger polyethylene than low-density polyethylene, which was invented in 1934. Notably, the first commercial application for HDPE plastic wasn’t containers but the hula hoop.

Ziegler went on to develop another type of plastic—polypropylene. Because of his work on the development of plastics, in 1963 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Who Designed the Recycle Symbol?

The recycle symbol was designed in 1970 by Gary Anderson when he was a student at the University of Southern California. He created the design over one or two days and entered it into a contest sponsored by a corrugated paper manufacturer, Container Corporation of America.

Anderson’s design won the contest, and he received $2,500. After that, the Container Corporation started getting other companies to use Anderson’s symbol. However, since the corporation never trademarked the design, other manufacturers could adopt and modify the logo.

This led to confusion for consumers—did the symbol stand for a product that had been recycled or could be recycled?  The addition of numbers inside the symbols led to increased confusion about what could and could not be recycled.

The Society of the Plastics Industry created a standardized system in 1988 that all manufacturers agreed to use. However, manufacturers were only required to use the symbols, not to make them readable.

The organization How2Recycle is working to change that by creating standardized labels that tell the consumer what and how to recycle something. Instead of a recycle symbol with a number, they design logos that indicate the type of product and how to recycle it.

Bottom Line

Number 2 plastic is a durable product that’s universally accepted as long as it’s clean before being placed into a recycling receptacle. Recycling plastic has come a long way from its early days when even paper had to be sorted. Unfortunately, even though it’s easy to recycle, only 35% of number 2 plastics are recycled every year, and the rest wind up in landfills.

In addition, plastic bags made from number 2 plastics are rarely recycled, so limiting their use will go a long way to cutting down on plastic pollution.


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