Do we Know Enough About Recycling? A Study Suggests That We Don’t

Even a toddler would know the importance people in the current age are giving to protecting the environment and sustainable development, barring whoever set the ocean on fire and casually brushes it off.

As an enthusiast of social sciences and modern day issues, reading about sustainable development was nothing out of the ordinary for me. Yet, one day, despite all that I’ve read about recycling, a friend stopped me from throwing a coffee cup in the recycling bin to ask, “did you check the number behind the cup?” What number? It had the recycling logo on it, what more did I have to see? It was then that I learned an eye opening piece of information.

recyclable plastics with grade

It’s not the ‘recycling logo’ that matters but the number inside it to dictate whether it’s recyclable or not.

Eventually, I decided to conduct a small research to find out more about people and their practical knowledge of recycling by assessing (a) what people think they know; (b) what they actually know; (c) what their attitude is about knowing more; & (d) what they do. About 300 people participated in the survey, which was in the form of simple multiple choice questions posted on my Instagram story.

One of the most obvious conclusions in this is that people knew and preached more than they practice, but that’s not the alarming part so I’ll skip laying that data out. The more important revelation was that people overestimated their knowledge and practice of recycling. This study revealed that many respondents did not know the basics of recycling.

Among them, 63% people claimed that they knew how to check if an item was recyclable, and 62% claimed that they have actively recycled. This shows what they think about their recycling practices and it’s pretty positive! So then I decided to get more technical and test if they really knew enough.

Photo by Sarah Chai on

I asked participants if they knew where to recycle tetra pack milk cartons sorted by different geographic regions: those who lived in the United Arab Emirates, and those who did not. 22% of the former category claimed that they knew compared to 19% of the latter. The regional difference aside, given that tetra pack cartons are a common product in urban areas, a 19-22% recycling knowledge range is perhaps alarming.

But that question was too specific, so I asked a more general question to assess their practical knowledge. “Have you ever tried reading the grade of plastic (the number inside the recycling logo) printed on items?” But again, only 35% of respondents answered that they did.

Finally, I asked respondents if they make effort to learn more about recycling and only half of them said that they do.

The evidence was clear. Most of us think we know enough about recycling, we think we know how to recycle, but we don’t. It’s not like all of us are supposed to have a PhD in recycling or be a vocal environmentalist but at least we should know the basics of where trash belongs.

What the different plastic grades are and if they can be recycled

Below is a breakdown of the different grades of plastic and if they are recyclable. Keep in mind, this also depends on the recycling infrastructure of where you live. What items may be recyclable in one place may not be in another, so be to sure to check that out.

PET, PETE: Polyethylene Terephthalate

Examples: peanut butter and jam jars, soft drinks, water bottles, salad dressing bottles.

Easily recyclable

HDPE: High-Density Polyethylene

Examples: water pipes, grocery bags, plates, some shampoo bottles.

Easily Recyclable

PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride

Examples: pipes, cables, furniture, clothes, toys

Not recyclable

LDPE: Low-Density Polyethylene

Examples: frozen food bags, squeezable honey and mustard bottles, shopping bags


PP: Polypropylene

Examples: Yogurt containers, reusable microwavable ware, kitchenware



Examples: egg cartons, packing peanuts, disposable cups, and plates

Not recyclable

Other (often polycarbonate or ABS)

Examples: beverage bottles, baby milk bottles, glazing lenses, including sunglasses.

Not recyclable

The examples are only to give you some idea. In reality, you might want to check every product before discarding it as they can be differently packaged and graded.

Credits: content summarized by my colleague Mahasen via ‘Exactly what every plastic recycling symbol actually means‘.

What to do if you can’t recycle?

Not every area might have an accessible recycle bin, and not every kind of plastic can be recycled. So what can you do if you’re in a situation where you want to be more responsible about your waste instead of just discarding it in a bin?

Apart from the obvious answer of reducing or reusing them, you can also upcycle and bring out or develop your creative side!

Beverage bottles, painted over to be used as decorations by Noor.

Newspapers used for 3D Origami by Samrin Saleem.

Yogurt and juice powder containers converted into plant pots at my house.

A cereal box, repurposed into a miniature Foosball table for calm players by Samrin Saleem.

Coffee drink bottles, reused as holders for bracelets and bangles by Sanjiti.

What are some ways in which you repurpose products at your house which you can’t give away for recycling? Let me know in the comments so even other viewers can gain inspiration. If you found this post informative, don’t forget to share it with others and help everyone take more informed environmental choices.



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