Making Numbers on Recyclable Items as Easy as 1-2-3

By Sher Warkentin in Thinking Sustainably

Did you know that not all plastic recyclables are the same?

Once upon a time, I tossed anything that was made out of plastic into the recycling bin and gave myself a pat on the back for making the planet a better place. Unfortunately, as I learned, it’s not always that simple.

The truth is there are many types of plastic, and not all of them can be recycled through curbside programs. Luckily, there’s an easy way to sort them. A quick glance at the numbers on recyclable items will tell you everything you need to know, but first you have to understand what they mean. Here are a few activities you can do with your kids that teach the whole family about recycling by numbers—just in time for Earth Day:

Look for the number inside the recycling triangle.

It’s All in the Numbers

The first step is to learn what the numbers represent. As the EPA explains, each numeral indicates a different type of plastic. In general, plastics with the numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 are pretty widely accepted as recyclable. Numbers 3, 6, and 7, on the other hand, are difficult to recycle and aren’t always accepted by many programs. Each city and state has its own regulations on what can be recycled through curbside pickup.

I’m lucky enough to live in a city that accepts all seven types, but that’s somewhat rare. You need to do a little research by calling your local waste management department or looking up the details online in order to find out what’s acceptable to recycle in your area. Helpful green apps can help you find local and national recycling programs that might accept items that your city program won’t.

Sorting Your Trash

Now it’s time to get crafty and create a family recycling cheat sheet. To get started, divide a plain sheet of paper into two sections. Mark one side “recycling bin” and the other side “trash.” Then have your kids fill in the numbers on recyclable items 1 to 7 where they belong in each section based on your findings.

Hang the chart near your home recycling bin so that the whole family can use it as reference to check recyclables. You can also have kids draw an example of the item next to the number as visual reference.

Make a recycling numbers chart as a guide for your trash bins.

Matching Game

The best way to avoid the items that are extremely difficult to recycle is to be more aware of what they are. This game lets kids get to know what types of products typically match with specific numbers on recyclable items. Talk about some examples of items—like shampoo bottles, CD cases, and plastic bags—and help your child draw them on cardstock or a piece of cardboard that you’re looking to reuse. Then, cut the different images out.

Repurpose empty tissue or shoe boxes into mini sorting bins, and give each one a number from 1 to 7. Gather all the cut-out images to play a game, seeing how many your child can sort into the correct bin.

Recycling Bingo

This is another game that uses those same cutouts. Make a blank Bingo grid (or download one online), and fill all the squares randomly with numbers from 1 to 7. Place the cutouts in a bag, and pull them out one by one. Call out what the item is, and see if your child can identify the number that matches. Using a dot-stamper, stamp the matching number on the Bingo board. The first player to fill a row with stamps wins!

Repurposed Crafts

One of the most important lessons to impart when teaching kids about recycling is that not all plastics are equal and some can’t be recycled. Once your kids start to recognize the items that are considered too difficult to recycle, you can start talking about what to do with those things instead. Ideally, you want to try to avoid buying them in the first place, but if that’s not possible, get creative in coming up with ways to reuse them. Crafts that make use of old CD cases can be the perfect rainy-weekend activity

Playing games and creating crafts is a great way to have some fun while learning, which makes it much easier to teach big ideas in a way that kids can understand. Celebrate Earth Day this year by teaching your whole family about recycling numbers and what they mean.

How do you teach your kids about recycling? Tweet us your creative ideas for Earth Day 2017.

Image sources: Flickr | Sher Warkentin

This article was brought to you by Tom’s of Maine. The views and opinions expressed by the author do not reflect the position of Tom’s of Maine.

Why It’s Good

Knowing what the numbers on recyclable items mean can be a bit confusing. However, with some research, games, and crafts, you can turn your whole family into recycling experts. You'll help the planet and have a wonderful time in the process.