Pick up any plastic item in your home, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a familiar symbol of three looping arrows, the universal sign for recycling. The numbers inside the arrows represent resin identification codes, a classification created by the industry to denote different kinds of plastics. It’s a symbol commonly associated with environmentalism, a sunny reminder that we can always reduce, reuse—and recycle. As we face a global plastic crisis, it’s comforting to think that your plastic water bottle will become something new and useful once you’re done with it.
But contrary to popular belief, that symbol doesn’t really mean that the item will be recycled. Just because a plastic item can be recycled doesn’t mean it’s always technically possible for the average person to do so. Only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled at all, and it’s not because consumers are lazy but because the whole system is broken. Recycling is, by and large, an extremely expensive and resource-intensive process, profitable only when there’s high demand for the end product and lots of plastic to process at huge facilities. And even if you go out of your way to clean and sort your plastic waste, your municipal recycling facility could be sending it to landfills anyway.
Read on to learn about the different types of plastic, what to do with them, and the big, big problems with the recycling system.