Can you recycle plastic bottles and caps?

PET is readily recyclable—but we still need to lower our consumption of single-use bottles

Nearly 600 billion plastic bottles are generated annually across the world.1 In the United States, plastic bottles are one of the most widely-recycled plastic products. But that rate is still low for these highly-recyclable products—under 30%, according to estimates from the EPA. 2

Plastic drinking bottles are usually made of a type of plastic called polyethylene terephthalate plastic (PET), which can easily be recycled into new plastic or, more commonly, into fibrous products like carpeting. More than two-thirds of disposable beverage bottles are made of PET, or #1 plastic, and every recycling facility commonly it.3

The plastic caps on plastic bottles can be recycled attached to their bottles, as well. While the caps are sometimes made of other plastic types, recycling facilities grind bottles and their caps into fine powder-like grounds and then use a water bath float method to separate the PET plastic from the other plastic materials that might have been used in the caps. 

How to recycle a plastic bottle at home

Plastic bottles typically have a #1 label, which means they are made of PET plastic. Bottles used for food storage or cleaning storage might also be made of polyethylene or polypropylene, #2 and #5 respectively. Most facilities also accept #2 plastic.

Once you’ve identified the number on your bottle—technically a resin identification code—to ensure it can be recyclable. The heat and washing processes that occur during recycling will remove the labels and the glue, so don’t worry about taking those off. Don’t bag or crush your bottles, either: Sorting machines are designed for bottle shapes and sizes, and changing their profile could actually make them harder to sort. Then go about recycling them according to the systems set up in your community. 

Where to recycle plastic bottles

PET, the plastic in single-use bottles, is one of the most commonly-recycled plastics out there. Look into your community recycling program first, but it’s very likely they will be recyclable. Plastic bottles may even score you a little bit of cash. Ten states, including California, Connecticut, Iowa, and Hawaii, offer anywhere from 2 to 15 cents for bottles returned to redemption centers or designated grocery stores. 

Recycling options beyond curbside pickup

If you do not have the option to place recyclables in a recycling bin for pickup at or near your home, you can find local recycling centers or community drop-off programs in your area. Earth 911 maintains a searchable database of recycling centers and options for all types of materials, including plastic bottles. Your municipality or city should also provide a list of recycling options and resources. 

Nearly 600 billion plastic bottles are generated annually across the world.

Why is recycling plastic bottles important? 

Plastics creation is responsible for just over 3% of global carbon emissions and relies on the extraction of fossil fuels.4 Once plastic has been created and used, it fills nearly 20% of space in landfills in the United States, the EPA reports.

Mismanaged plastic waste or rubbish that escapes landfills can pollute waterways and oceans, leading to environmental leaching and wildlife death. Somewhere between 75 and 200 million tons of plastic sit in the world’s oceans, according to a U.N. report.5 Because plastics don’t decompose, they instead break into very small pieces called microplastics that can harm oceans and marine life. They also contaminate drinking water and are now found commonly inside human bodies.

Plastics recycling can both lower the amount of plastics polluting the environment and inside of landfills and also reduce the need for new virgin plastic creation, which in turn can lower the industry’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. While most plastics are not recycled and end up in landfills or incinerated, plastic bottles actually have a decent amount of potential for new recycled products—including new plastic bottles, packaging materials, clothing, carpets, and more.

What do all the plastic recycling numbers mean?

The plastic recycling numbers are actually codes that identify the type of plastic the container or bottle is made from. While PET plastic, or number 1, is the most common type for bottles, health experts recommend avoiding numbers 3 (PVC), 6 (styrofoam), and 7 (unspecified) if you don’t know more about the safety of the plastic container. 

How to reduce plastic bottle use

You can reduce your plastic bottle use by opting for reusable water bottles and reducing consumption of sodas or other drinks sold in single-use containers. Of course, if you must use a single-use bottle or other packaging, it is worth checking out how recyclable the plastic is made of. 

While you can reuse plastic water bottles for fun crafts like homemade bird feeders or terrariums, health experts advise against drinking out of an already used single-use bottle. Scratches on the inside of the bottles can harbor bacterial growth and can be difficult to fully clean.

  1. Global bottled water industry: A review of impacts and trends, United Nations University, Mar. 2023. ↩︎
  2. Advancing sustainable materials management: Facts and figures report, United States Environmental Protection Agency, Nov. 2020. ↩︎
  3. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle-to-bottle recycling for the beverage industry: A review, Polymers (Basel), Jun. 2022. ↩︎
  4. Plastic leakage and greenhouse gas emissions are increasing, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Feb. 2022. ↩︎
  5. Our planet is choking on plastic, United Nations Environment Programme, 2022. ↩︎