Recycling Mysteries: #5 Plastics

plastic #5

If you’re trying to be more eco-conscious, chances are you’re already recycling plastic bottles (or using reusable ones!). But what about yogurt cups, hummus tubs or cottage cheese containers? What’s the best way to dispose of those?

Items like these, as well as medicine bottles and some microwave-safe take-out containers, are typically made from #5 plastic, or polypropylene. This type of plastic is lightweight, yet durable and can withstand high temperatures, moisture and oil, making it ideal for food and other containers.

This type of plastic is lightweight, yet durable and can withstand high temperatures, moisture and oil. Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">Kathleen Franklin</a>

This type of plastic is lightweight, yet durable and can withstand high temperatures, moisture and oil. Photo: Kathleen Franklin

So, What’s the Problem?

Up until recently, most community curbside recycling programs didn’t accept #5 plastics. And while 28 of the 100 largest U.S. cities now collect plastic containers beyond bottles, many areas still do not.

“[#5 plastics] are not mainstream, but that’s because it takes a while for things to catch on,” says Judith Dunbar, the director of environmental and technical issues (plastics) for the American Chemistry Council. “In the early stages of recycling, like the ‘90s, it was mostly about bottles. Ninety five to 96 percent of the bottles that are manufactured are either #1 or #2.”

Of that remaining 4 percent, she says, polypropylene represents maybe 1 percent. But she explained that because #5 has a similar type resin to that of #2, many reclaimers are starting to find ways to incorporate it into other products. Garbage and recycling bins, water filtration systems, shipping pallets, sheeting and automotive battery casings are just a few of the products that can be made out of recycled polypropylene.

Where Can I Recycle #5?

If your community doesn’t have curbside #5 recycling, or there arn't plastic #5 recyclers near you, here are two programs that can help:

1. Preserve Gimme 5
Preserve, a maker of household goods that utilize 100 percent recycled plastics and post-consumer paper, has partnered with Organic Valley and Stoneyfield Farms to help capture #5 plastics before they end up in landfills. You can either drop your #5 plastic containers off at designated Whole Foods locations or mail them directly to Preserve, where they will be remade into items such as razors, toothbrushes, cutlery and mixing bowls—all of which are fully recyclable.

While former instructions told us to throw the caps away before recycling, the new rules say to keep them on. Photo: <a href="" target="_blank">Steven Depolo</a>

While former instructions told us to throw the caps away before recycling, the new rules say to keep them on. Photo: Steven Depolo

2. Recycle Caps with Aveda
Even though they typically aren’t printed with a #5 symbol, most plastic caps (like those on water and soda bottles) are made from polypropylene. Aveda created this program to ensure they don’t end up harming birds and other marine life when discarded on beaches or in water sources.

Besides collecting plastics caps from participating schools and stores, Aveda is encouraging people to bring in clean tops from shampoo, beverage and condiment bottles (such as ketchup and mayonnaise) to its retail stores. Aveda will then ship the caps to its own recyclers and use the material to make new caps for its hair and beauty products.

Keep the Cap On

Remember those bottles you were recycling earlier? If you’re not already taking the caps to Aveda, screw them on loosely before you toss them in the bin. While former instructions told us to throw the caps away, the new rules say to keep them on. Dunbar explains that if polypropylene caps travel to a recycling plant and are not attached to a bottle, it’s very easy for them to jam machines or slip through cracks and get lost, defeating the whole purpose.

“During the grinding and wash process for #1 or #2 bottles, the bottle material will sink and the cap material will float,” says Dunbar. Then it’s just a matter of skimming them off the top and either selling or utilizing the caps for something else.

The same as any movement, the more people try to recycle polypropylene, the more widespread and easier it will become. “It’s really a volume issue, just like anything else,” Dunbar says. “If you don’t have a lot of volume, then it’s not going to sell.”

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  • Ian

    Very nice, thanks! With 10 places within 5 miles of me I have no excuse.

  • Kathy Gray

    Thank-you. Because of your article I went to the Gimme5 website and found a place to take my #5 plastics. That has really been bugging me that we didn’t have a place to take them, but now we do.

  • Iris

    In my town, caps and lids are big NO in the recycling bin. You may want to clarify in the future which communities allow caps, or just say check with your recycler.

  • Life’s A Beach

    Thanks for helping to raise awareness.
    My 12 year old daughter did a since project for her school that came in first place and had the opportunity to compete in a county regional since fair computation.
    She wanted to see what is the one biggest item of shore line pollution on three local California beaches? The study found that plastic litter accounted for almost 90%.
    What we found to be the number one source of plastic marine debris was plastic tops, lids and caps. Not only was our study results upsetting it was also shocking to see
    first hand the effects of plastic on marine life finding a dead seal with a
    plastic rope around its neck and a see bird bead lying on the shore.
    She thought and wondered what we could do to help raise awareness.
    Imagining what we all could accomplish if we recycle.
    She came up with an idea to a possible solution to help reduce plastic waste.
    We know there is a CRV on bottles that already exists but what about the tops of them?
    If we were to add a (CRV) California Refund Value all plastic with tops, lids from containers Do you think that we would find less of a problem?

  • Cassie

    Thanks for the information. I have been wondering for a long time where to take these items. I have now setup a cap recycling box at my work and home. For my #5 plastics, unfortunately I am going to have to mail then to the gimme 5 program since NC does not have a location. At least it is start!!

  • Cyndi Neumann

    I was excited that Whole Foods took Old RX bottles till I found the only ones that take them are mainly on the West and East coasts..Alabama sure does not take them and Birmingham only has one store, but, I was willing to drive to it to dispose of the huge box I have of Old RX bottles as I refuse to throw them away.

    I saw where Target sells their remade items, so why don’t they also collect the bottles with the bins in front of their stores?


  • Kelley

    I always thought the caps, on a bottle, were an operational hazard because when the bottle gets squished in a machine or truck the cap becomes a projectile. It is true, in large volumes, the material can be recycled but wouldn’t it be better to recommend people crush their bottle and then put the cap on it before recycling. Crushing also decreases volume, saving carbon emissions during transportation.

  • Linda A.

    I’m afraid my #5s are just going to have to get taken to my transfer station with my other non-recyclable trash as there are no drop-off sites anywhere near me, and mailing them just isn’t practical.

  • Sandi

    I work at a high school and contacted Aveda about sending caps to them for recycling. They have been extremely helpful. They provided the school with pre-addresssed UPS mailing labels and cover the cost of shipping. I would suggest contacting your local schools to get them on board- that would give you a place to take your caps. Not only has this program been very successful, it has brought awareness to many of our staff and students just how many plastic bottles they use and hopefully will convince them to come up with less wasteful ways to drink water, sports drinks, etc.

  • Thomas Ensminger

    I work as a volunteer in various different things in my village and I remember reading about “plastics” very recently.(Im very much into recycling all materials). Some states do recycle #5 plastics-for example:: City pickup/ St. Joseph/Missouri. BUT in Maine they only recycle: #1 & #2 plastic now. In Maine the transfer station makes a very small amount of money on a ton of plastic simply because they had to invest in some very expensive industrial equipment that packages said material.. The State of Maine may write the Laws regarding recycling but they dont help villages set it up./—Ive heard the same complaint from other states. Ive been told that some states make zero on plastic materials but since its the Law they have to do it. So from this anyone should be able to tell that there is a mixture of opinion when it comes to plastic materials. If anyone wants to contact me-use my email. Thank You.

  • ct

    I just learned about Preserve very recently and I am so glad that they are doing this. If you haven’t heard or seen it yet, I recommend visiting the website to see what all the plastic debris that gets washed away into the waste stream is doing to our oceans and sea life. We really should find more ways to recycle and re-purpose trashed containers into new and useful items in order to prevent them from going into the waste stream.

  • Trey Granger

    Brita filters are also made of #5 plastic. They are accepted by Preserve as well as certain Whole Foods stores.

  • Sandra

    I was wondering if any one has any idea how much plastic/ latex/ vinyl waste is created at one birth, then multiplied by approximately 4 million births…. what is the tonnage from hospital birth? If just 30% of women gave birth at home imagine the environmental impact!

  • Manuel

    Let me ask this: do you all recycle? Or do you put things in bins?

    Because the latter is all I can claim I do! Nobody knows where that goes, or cares. Also there is no way of knowing. There is not a real traceable recycling system in place. What we have now is: out of sight, out of mind+hope for the best = back to the mall to consume some more.

    Why is it our duty to recycle waste? Who makes the decision to create it? Do you choose how your coca cola is bottled? I’d like it to come in glass, which is really recyclable. How come producers are not resposible for the end life of their products?

    We need a revolution in the way products are designed and disposed of. We need producer responsibility, transparency and accountability. Otherwise, we are just greenwashing a system designed to generate more and more waste.

    Most of plastics waste on the US West coast goes to China. Plastics is the number one export of the Uk to China. Check out this video expose and wake up!