Most businesses and institutions generate plastic materials that can be recycled. Many of these plastics, such as bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs, can be collected together through a single stream or dual stream recycling program. Plastics that are not easily sorted at a materials collection facility (MRF) are considered contamination when placed in a mixed single or dual-stream recycling bin. Some plastics, such as plastic bags and other film plastics, or rigid plastics, must be collected separately to be processed by a dedicated plastics recycler.

What plastics should go in single stream recycling?

Some plastics are coded with numbers ranging from 1 to 7, which identify the basic resin type of the plastic. However, just because an item displays a resin identification code does not necessarily mean that the product is recyclable at your local materials recycling facility (MRF). There are additional considerations when determining if a plastic is recyclable, such as the size, shape, and color of the material.

Most clean plastic bottles, jugs, and tubs can be recycled. Keep plastic lids attached. Lids that are not attached are too small for sorting equipment and literally fall through the cracks. All plastics collected for recycling must be free from contaminants such as food, liquid, or other non-recyclable materials. Refer to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) Recycle Smart MA search tool to determine whether a specific material can be accepted and processed by most single stream MRFs in Massachusetts, and consult your hauler if you have additional questions about specific items commonly generated at your business.

See the RecyclingWorks Single Stream Recycling webpage for additional guidance on starting and maintaining an effective single stream recycling program.

RecyclingWorks developed a visual to help guide businesses and institutions on how to collect recyclable materials in plastic bags without contaminating single stream recycling.

What plastics should not go in single stream recycling?

Do not place any of the following materials in single stream recycling.

  • Plastic bags and other film plastics (e.g. plastic bags, cling wrap, rubber gloves) – Plastic film and bags tangle with the rotating sorting equipment at single stream MRFs so avoid placing these materials in mixed recycling. However, many plastic film materials can be collected separately for recycling.
  • Bulky rigid plastics (e.g. plastic buckets, crates) – Large plastic items are too big for MRFs to handle, but these materials can often be collected separately for recycling.
  • Black plastic (e.g. takeout containers) – In the majority of Massachusetts’ MRFs, the scanners used to sort materials are unable to recognize black plastic materials, which leads them to be routed for disposal.
  • Items smaller than a smart phone (e.g. plastic straws, miniature bottles, utensils and lids) – These are incompatible with MRF equipment since small or thin items end up falling through the cracks.

Businesses and institutions can collect some of these items separately for recycling, and should consider reducing or discontinuing use of other materials, such as plastic straws.

Recycling plastic film

Plastic bags and films, like shrink wrap, are usually categorized as plastic code #4, or LDPE (Low-density polyethylene). This kind of plastic is used to manufacture grocery bags and some flexible lids and bottles. Though plastic bags and films should not be included in single stream recycling, this material does have a market, and can be recycled.

Businesses that regularly generate a large quantity of recyclable plastic film may want to collect and bale this material on-site to maximize the cost-effectiveness of their recycling program. The RecyclingWorks Find-a-Recycler tool allows you to search our database and connect with a processor that accepts plastic film for recycling.

Many retailers collect post-consumer plastic bags in bins located at the front of their stores, and combine these with commercial plastic film collected in the back-of-house. For a directory of plastic film drop off locations, as well as more information about recycling this material, visit PlasticFilmRecycling.org.

Recycling rigid plastics

Rigid plastics such as icing buckets, milk crates, seafood trays, and pharmaceutical containers are not accepted in single stream recycling. However, there are options and markets to recycle these materials. The RecyclingWorks Find-a-Recycler tool allows you to search our database and connect with a processor that accepts rigid plastics.

Rigid plastics are a common material found in supermarkets. The Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers (APR) has several resources available to supermarkets who are interested in collecting rigid plastics, including details about the different sources and how to streamline collection. These programs may be a good option for generating additional recycling revenue. For more information, videos, pictures, and details about launching a successful program, visit Recycle Grocery Rigid Plastics.

Why should you recycle plastics?

Currently, all single-resin narrow-necked plastic containers are banned from disposal in the state by the Massachusetts Waste Bans. Recycling is also good for the planet and your local community because it helps conserve valuable resources, reduces pollution from production of new materials, helps to conserve limited disposal capacity, and creates new business development and jobs.

How are plastics recycled?

Conventional recycling programs that accept plastic containers sort these containers by resin type, and send them off for further processing. Once collected and sorted by resin type, plastics are typically either ground up or flaked, cleaned, and resold to a plastics manufacturer to be made into new plastic products.

Used plastic can be made into a second generation of products, including clothing and bags, durable building and construction products, door and window frames, exterior moldings, low-maintenance fencing and decks, and furniture such as Adirondack chairs.

Learn about recycling other materials

For more information on other commonly recycled materials, visit these pages:

Additional Resources: