The Association of Plastic Recyclers

Recyclable vs Recycled: What you need to know; why it matters

Reduce, reuse, recycle – we've all heard it a hundred times. This year, the need to reduce what we buy and the value of reusing and repairing what we can has hit home. But everything has an end to its useful life, and that is where recycling comes in.

Recycling is a necessary and important part of sustainability that prevents waste and reduces the need to extract and refine new raw materials.

There are two sides to recycling: recyclability and recycled content. Here is what that means, and why the difference matters.

Recyclable:
can be
collected and remanufactured into new products

You know these chasing arrows symbols on containers? ♳♴♵♶♷♸♹

Sadly, they do NOT mean "this is recyclable" -- they merely identify what kind of plastic it is. Always check with your local recycling program for what you can recycle at home.

When in doubt, throw it out – yes, really! It's more important to recycle the right stuff than to try to recycle everything. Too many of the wrong things can ruin an entire batch of recyclables.

There are three main ways to recycle:

  • Community recycling programs: depending on where you live, you may have a recycling bin for your household or building, or a drop off center in town
  • Store drop off: many grocery and retail stores will take your plastic bags and wraps in designated bins at the front of the store
  • Specialty recycling programs: some companies will "take back" their own products or packaging for recycling through unique drop off sites or mail in options

Recycled:
has been
collected and remanufactured into new products

Are you putting stuff in the recycling bin, but not buying products made with recycled content? We hate to break it to you, but you're kind of missing the point of recycling.

Recycling exists to give our old stuff a new life after we're done with it. Using recycled products conserves our natural resources and avoids the staggering environmental degradation that comes with manufacturing new stuff from scratch.

What you buy tells companies what you want in the best way that they will listen. 

When you choose a sustainable recycled product over something else, you send a loud and clear signal that you want companies to make use of your recyclables. Your demand can and does create a powerful shift in how companies make and market their products.

Thanks to that increasing demand from people like you, it's getting easier to find recycled products. Many things you're already buying at the store or ordering online have a version made with recycled content. If you're shopping for something truly special, you might even find a local artist who makes recycled gifts.

A truly sustainable product is both recyclable and recycled. Unfortunately, not everything that is recyclable has recycled content, and not everything that has recycled content is also recyclable. To make your life easier, there are some labels you can look for when you're shopping.

Bonus Tip: Look for these recycled content labels

Recycled content comes in two flavors: post-consumer (PCR) and post-industrial (PIR, also called pre-consumer). 

In a nutshell, PCR is recycled material that has meet its intended use and is ready to be remade. For example, the bottles and tubs you're putting in your recycling bin after you've consumed the contents. It can also be behind-the-counter packaging that your local businesses are putting in their recycling bins.

PIR has never met its intended use. This is scraps, off-spec pieces, or bits of material from a factory that didn't make it into their final product. Using PIR is a common practice in manufacturing for efficient use of materials. It's a great way to make sure the scraps don't go to waste.

When you're shopping, look for recycled products with these labels. The more recycled content, the better!

"Post-consumer content"
That means the recycled material comes from homes and businesses. It's your recyclables reincarnated!

"Made with recycled content" or "Made with recycled plastic"
If they don't specify "post-consumer" content, it's probably post-industrial.

We hope that understanding these terms will help you navigate the sea of sustainability claims on packaging.

Thank you for recycling right and for buying recycled. When we all take part, we all win!

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