How to Recycle HDPE (Plastic #2)

Learn how to recycle HDPE and do your part to keep the environment clean.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

Recycling HDPE (Plastic #2)
Recycling HDPE (Plastic #2) / Sander Tamm / Ecolife

You’ve likely used high-density polyethylene plastic (HDPE) during the course of this very day – that durable, strong plastic used to make one-use plastic bags, drink containers, shampoo bottles, and stretchy plastic. It’s a very widely-used type of plastic and because of that has a relatively big environmental footprint. But there are many things you can do to minimize your use and ensure you properly recycle these plastics. Let’s get started.

Environmental facts about plastic #2

The eco-footprint of HDPE plastic is pretty similar to other types of plastic, but here are a few #2 plastic specific stats to give you an idea of its impact on the world:

  • Aliases: This plastic has several names, including high density polyethylene, HDPE, and plastic #2.
  • Pollution: Like all other plastics, manufacturing HDPE produces air pollution (including carbon dioxide, non-methane hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and sulfur oxides), water pollution (like acids, ammonia, chromium, dissolved and suspended solids, and iron), and solid waste (such as coal ash and other particulates from burning fuel).
  • Decomposition: The average plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to dissolve in the environment, and Americans use approximately 200 billion every year. Worldwide, humans use 5 trillion plastic bags annually.
  • Landfill space: Recycling one HDPE plastic bottle out of ten in America would save 200 million pounds of plastic from going to the dump. Unfortunately, because of its lightweight nature, #2 plastic often blows away from landfills and ends up in the wild – forests, oceans, and other natural landscapes – where it can harm animals and create an unsightly mess.
  • Recycling rates: Unfortunately, only 5% of all plastics are recycled in the US, though the numbers for HDPE plastics is somewhat higher. About 29.3% of HDPE milk jugs and water bottles are recycled and only 1-3% of all plastic bags make it to recycling facilities.

Where you find plastic #2 in your home

This is another very popular type of plastic that you will find all over your house – from the kitchen to the bathroom to the utility room to the backyard. Check out how versatile HDPE plastic is:

  • Beverage containers – milk, water, juice
  • Cereal box liners
  • Cleaning product containers – laundry detergent, all purpose cleaners
  • Cosmetic containers – shampoo, conditioner, facial wash
  • Pipe and conduit
  • Shipping containers
  • Thin film plastic shopping bags
  • Wire and cable coverings.
  • Wood composites

HDPE recycling into new products

Using recycling postconsumer HDPE plastic to make new products is preferable to making products from raw resources. It saves landfill space, energy, water, resources, and reduces pollution. Consider, for instance, recycling HDPE plastic bags – making new bags from post-consumer content uses 67% less energy, 90% less water, and produces 33% fewer sulfur dioxide emissions, 50% fewer nitrous oxide emissions, and 87% fewer carbon dioxide emissions. These are just a few of the products that can be made from recycling HDPE:

  • Crates
  • Film plastic and sheeting
  • Floor tiles
  • Gardening tools, flower pots, and hardscape materials (edging, etc)
  • Non-food bottles – shampoo, conditioner, cleaning products, laundry cleaners, motor oil, antifreeze
  • Pipe
  • Plastic lumber – used for playgrounds, outdoor patios, picnic tables, etc.
  • Recycling bins

How to recycle plastic #2

Turning your used HDPE 2 plastic products into new things starts by you recycling your old products. Follow these steps to ensure your plastic #2 waste goes to the right place:

  • Reduce your use: The easiest way to reduce your consumption of HDPE plastic is to consume less of it in the first place! Do this by carrying reusable shopping bags with you on every outing so that you don’t have to choose between paper or plastic.
  • Curbside recycling: Many curbside recycling programs accept HDPE plastic bags for recycling – just ask before you include it in your bin and then be sure to keep them from blowing away by securing them in the bin on recycle day. Milk jugs, water bottles, cleaning and cosmetic containers, and other commonly used plastics with a #2 on the bottom should also be eligible for curbside recycling.
  • Grocery store drop-off: In the event that your curbside program doesn’t accept plastic bags, try this option. Most supermarkets will accept plastic bags (theirs and other brands) for recycling. Check your local grocery store for bins assigned for this purpose. Then make sure you put “recycle plastic bags” on your grocery list so that you remember to return them on your next trip.