The chasing arrows stamped on single use plastic containers. are familiar to us all. These purport to encourage consumers to “Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle.” On the other hand, they psychologically permit us to not “feel guilty,” and to “give us permission” to use disposable plastics. The SPI codes, numbered #1- 7 inside the arrows, designate the type of feedstock (resin, polymer) each is manufactured from. Although there have been recent strides in plastic recycling, new capacity is dwarfed by the sheer mass of new and scattered legacy plastic waste.

Overall, in the US, less than 10% of new plastic is recycled. Here in Central Virginia, all types are plastic accepted in recycle bins, collected, then sorted, placed in 1250 lb. bales and sold to customers. China was the largest customer, but recently, its purchases have dropped precipitously, and the market is sharply diminished.

Feedstocks #1- #7 are all petroleum based. Plastic manufacture involves addition of specific organic reagents to a specific SPI. These chemicals are highly toxic, and include known carcinogens. Most plastics “outgas” volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Trace chemicals leach out when plastics, including can linings, come into contact with liquids and foods. One chemical, BPA, leaches out from #1 PETE bottles. It is measurable  in 90% of human blood samples. Physiologically, BPA behaves as an estrogen mimic.

Plastic takes about 450 years to degrade on land. But in seawater, it slowly disintegrates  into micro- and nano-particles. These bind toxins. Micro-particles are present in the ocean food chain, including fish, marine mammals, and even in the deepest ocean, in the stomachs tiny amphipods, the shrimp-like creatures at the bottom of the sea-- and the food chain. Nano-particles are found in sand and sea salt. Tragically, trash items are found in the stomachs of many dead sea animals, such as beer cans in shark’s stomachs, plastic in whales, massive seabird deaths from plastic bottle caps, and sea turtle deaths from eating film plastics. [1] It is estimated that there are 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the oceans, which have become a plastic soup.

Use of heavier and thicker plastic packaging is accelerating. It truly begs questions, such as: Why should it be difficult to open packages?  Why multiple security seals? Why the increased use of oversize hard clam-shells? How much hard plastic should carry-out packaging require? And many others...

Europeans, alarmed about plastic impact, and are well ahead of the U.S. in the “Three Rs.” The Left Coast is ahead of the East. Concern about plastic waste here only began to arise here when landfills started to hit capacity. 

Plastic recycling is not a closed loop: plastics that are recycled are shredded, melted into pellets, and “down-cycled” into new products. The costs to municipalities for recycling collection are extremely high, and resource intensive; manufacturer’s costs to produce recycled plastic products can exceed those of using virgin petrochemicals. Overall, the vast majority of plastics still get landfilled.


PLASTIC #1 [PETE, Polystyrene Terephthalate] (clear), mostly used in water bottles, it leaches out BPA. Every minute, 1 million bottles are purchased around the world. Colossal amounts of PETE litter landfills, landscapes, and oceans.

PLASTIC #2 [HDPE, High density polyethylene] (opaque) bottles with necks.

PLASTIC #3, POLY-VINYL CHLORIDE (PVC)is valued for its hardness, flexibility, and durability; and it is the most widely used plastic. Some of the final ingredients are ethylene and chlorine gas, and PVC outgases "volatile organic compounds" (VOCs, new car smell); and hydrochloric acid.  It is ubiquitous in construction materials, examples being pipes, flooring, siding, cable; also used in autos, plastic toys, and formerly, Cling Wrap. PVC is recycled in a limited manner. It should be avoided around food. [2]

PLASTICS #4 [LDPE] and #5 [LLDPE], Bag and Film type plastic.  Film plastics jam up the solid plastic sorting machines-- the reason why they are collected separately. There have been great strides in recycling of film plastics, on both the industrial level, and in increased post-consumer processing. However, plastic film still remains a significant disposal problem. #5 LDPE is also used in prescription drug containers. These can be recycled if empty, and identifying information is blocked out with a permanent marker.

PLASTIC #6 Polystyrene [PS], Styrofoam brand. PS  “outgases” the chemical styrene. In seawater, it disperses into particles to form floating films that gather at land interfaces. These adsorb toxins, and are found in coastal feeding and breeding areas. PS is infused with the toxic fire retardant HBCD to create building insulation. Recycling of PS peanuts and grocery trays is in its infancy. PS can be down-cycled to pellets only regionally, with capacity limited due to low transportation reimbursement for lightweight materials. [3]

PLASTIC #7, or “Everything else,” is a broad catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and “other” plastics. These are difficult to recycle. However, #7 also includes a small number of biodegradable compostable plastics made from bio-based polymers such as corn starch. These are identifiable by the initials “PLA” beneath the #7 code. Some read “Compostable,” which means literally that they do require composting to degrade.

Balloons and attached ribbons cause innumerable wildlife fatalities, and there has been exponential growth in their use. Please don’t buy. If you do buy, don’t release. Environmentally friendly alternates can be used instead. Discarded fishing line is another wildlife hazard, and causes death by binding and immobilizing birds and animals. [4]


Central Virginia CVWMA has a handy interactive website that tells how to recycle specific items. If it can’t take an item, call, and they will direct to a place that does take them. Example, electronics, metals. [5]

For more information:

4)  dont-release-your-balloons;


Sea turtle after swallowing a balloon


Single use heavy #3 PVC "Good Grow" drink containers, $3.39

PS peanuts converge, Midway Atoll, Pacific Ocean.


Albatross ensnared by a ribbon

Beach in Dominican Republic

#1 PETE Bottles

      Jungle Care