Can You Recycle Number 5 Plastics?

Recycling isn’t the same as it used to be. A few years ago, China accepted much of the world’s plastic, textile, and paper recycling. But in 2018, China tightened restrictions on what it would accept due to the high level of contaminated material sent by the U.S.

Now, it’s time for the United States to take responsibility to recycle these streams of waste domestically in order to improve the “materials security” of the nation. That means keeping and processing more recyclable material inside the U.S., which will also reduce the carbon footprint of the current approach to recycling.

In the United States, plastic recycling is becoming a challenge, especially number 5 plastics. We’ve collected a few solutions to help you keep these plastics out of the landfills.

What Are Number 5 Plastics?

The recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic product does not necessarily indicate that the item can be recycled. That number surrounded by chasing arrows is a resin identification code and tells users what kind of plastic they’re holding. The chasing arrows symbol does not mean the plastic will be accepted and recycled in your community.

The number 5 with the recycling symbol indicates polypropylene, often just shortened to PP.

Number 5 plastic resin code
The resin identification code for polypropylene, commonly known as number 5 plastic

This plastic type is particularly hard and heat resistant. It’s often used in prescription medicine bottles, yogurt cups, hummus tubs, single-use cutlery, and some packaging for personal care products like deodorant, lotion, or shampoo. Lids of single-use drink bottles are often also made of number 5 plastic as well as a great deal of single-use laboratory and medical supplies at hospitals, clinics, and labs.

Number 5 plastics were widely accepted in both curbside and drop-off recycling centers before China’s National Sword policy was introduced in 2018. That is when China stopped accepting contaminated plastic waste for recycling. Recently, Earth911 has seen more curbside and drop-off programs reintroducing #5 rigid plastic recycling, but films and bags remain a problem. Add your ZIP Code on the Earth911 Platform to find local options near you.

Recycling Mail-in Programs

Currently, there a few mail-in options for recycling polypropylene. Do check with your local solid waste district to check local options in your region before going to this effort and expense.

Matthew 25: Ministries

The international humanitarian aid and disaster relief organization Mathew 25: Ministries accepts clean, empty pill bottles. They welcome prescription medicine bottles as well as small pill bottles that may be too small to recycle curbside. The ministry reuses bottles in countries where such supplies are limited and recycle those they cannot use.

TerraCycle

The giant in recycling the hard-to-recycle arena is TerraCycle. This company’s motto is “eliminating the idea of waste” and they have programs that allow you to recycle almost any type of waste.

TerraCycle does not have a recycling program specifically for number 5 plastics, so you’ll have to hunt around their website for the best solution for the items you have. There are free recycling programs for a variety of home and personal care products, as well as fee-based which can be filled and mailed to TerraCycle for between $92 and $241for the smallest sizes. A few of the boxes are ideal for #5 plastics:

Zero Waste Boxes for dairy tubs and lids

Zero Waste Boxes for bottle caps

The All-in-One Zero Waste Box, for any material, including #5 plastics.

Keeping Number 5 Plastics Out of the Trash

We’ve experienced a plastics crisis in the United States and around the world. Do what you can to eliminate plastic waste. One good place to start is to avoid plastics, like polypropylene, that can’t be recycled in your normal curbside or drop-off location.

If possible, skip the plastic and buy your yogurt in bulk or in glass containers — or make your own! Order a three-month supply of medicine instead of one, cutting down on packaging while saving a trip to the pharmacy.

Additionally, look for ways to reuse or upcycle your plastic containers. We love the idea of making suncatchers out of clear lids and playing a plastic bottle bowling game. Your number 5 plastic yogurt containers also make great organizers!

If your favorite product comes packaged in hard-to-recycle number 5 plastic, make your voice heard! Let the manufacturer know you love their product but want it to come in earth-friendly packaging.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 22, 2021, and updated in February 2024.