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Plastics Recycling Activity

mediaGreen EducationAug 22, 2017

This Keep America Beautiful activity helps students recognize the role of plastics in society, describe the plastics identification code, demonstrate the separation of plastics for collection and recycling, and explain the need for the plastics identification code.


  • You will need plastics that represent each of the seven recycling codes found on plastic containers.
  • The easiest way to accumulate these plastics would be to ask each student to bring in one empty, clean, and dry container (bag, bottle, jug, tray, clamshell, cup, plate, or other items) with each of the plastic codes on it.
  • Each student would then bring in up to seven pieces of plastic, but some students will not be able to find examples of each kind of plastic. Download an editable Home Plastics Collection List to send home with students.
  • Gather the plastics into a large bag or box.
  • Print copies of the Plastics by the Numbers Worksheet for your students.

Pre-Activity Discussion Points

  • The following points should be covered in discussions/explorations prior to the activity:
  • Plastics primarily are made from petroleum and natural gas, which are non-renewable resources.  A small percentage of plastics is now made from plant materials.
  • Plastics surround us and we use them for all kinds of purposes; in fact, we cannot get through a day without touching some form of plastic multiple times.
  • Many household recycling programs only accept No. 1 and No. 2 bottles and jugs with a neck or spout. Some localities accept additional plastics. Visit the Recycling by Locality page for specific recycling information in your city or county. Additionally, No. 2 and No. 4 plastic bags and film can be taken to most local grocery stores that have collection boxes.
  • Many plastics look very much alike, which makes it difficult to collect them for recycling.
  • Plastics create a litter problem because they are very lightweight and can be swept by wind and water across land, into storm drains, and into waterways and ultimately into the ocean.


  • Place plastics on a table accessible by all students.
  • Provide a “Plastics by the Numbers” worksheet for each student.
  • Ask the students to find one example of each number of plastics, record the type of container (bottle, jug, bag, packing material, etc.), and make observations about its properties (clear, opaque, translucent).
  • As students complete the activity, ask them to take a seat.
  • When students have completed the exploration, ask them to discuss some of their observations.  These observations might include that PETE is nearly always clear, that HDPE comes in many different colors and sometimes it is made into bags, that PP is very rigid, etc.
  • Use their observations as an opportunity to discuss how different plastics are used for different purposes because they are chemically different.  Even though some plastics look very much alike (for example, PETE and V, or HDPE and PP) they can’t be recycled together because they have different properties.  Use the enclosed “Plastics-Resin-Codes-PDF” for background information
  • Either sort the recyclables into (A) No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles and jugs, (B) No. 2 and No. 4 plastic bags, and (C) everything else or ask the students to.
  • Physically put the (C) plastics in a container (bag or box).  Place the (B) plastics in a plastic bag to be taken to a grocery store for recycling.  All that will be left are the (A) plastics, which are the only ones that can go in curbside recycling programs.

Post-Activity Discussion Points

  • It is important to recycle only the plastics that we are supposed to recycle in our programs.  Use the recycling codes to make sure you are recycling properly.  The wrong plastics put in the recycling containers have to be thrown away at the recycling center.  That makes our recycling program cost more.
  • Because plastics are made from non-renewable resources, it is very important to use them wisely.  If we can buy a product in an alternate recyclable or reusable material, we should.  Reuse plastic containers if we can.
  • Finally, make sure plastic is either recycled or thrown away properly because plastic litter is a major source of ocean pollution.

Download an editable file of the Plastics by the Numbers Instruction Guide .

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