Plastic products account for 11.3% of all municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. In 2003, 5.2% of it was recovered. About 8.9% of plastic containers and packaging were recovered, mostly soft drink, milk, and water bottles.
Two of the most widely used forms of plastic, PET (Polyethylene termpephthalate) and HDPE (high density polyethylene), are also the most recycled. PET bottles (soda, water) and HDPE bottles (milk, laundry detergent) are commonly collected in community recycling programs.
In 2003, 31.9% of HDPE and 25.2% of PET bottles were recycled. Most of the PET bottles (56%) are used in the manufacture of fiber for carpet and clothing. 29% of HDPE bottles go back into making new bottles.
In 2002, more than 51 million pounds of polystyrene were recycled back into foam egg cartons, lunch trays, transport packaging, and audio and videocassette cases. Polystyrene foodservice packaging (like clamshells) is not generally recycled, because it is not economically sustainable.
Polystyrene, HDPE, PET and other varieties of plastic all have different properties, so they must be separated to be used as a raw material for new products. The differences between varieties of plastic may not be readily apparent when comparing containers visually.
To help consumers assess the type of plastic, the society of the Plastics Industry developed a uniform coding system which identifies the type of resin used in plastic packaging (like bottles, packages, etc.). These "plastic codes" now appear on most forms of plastic packaging. Learn more about plastic recycling.