Keeping Problematic Plastics Out of Circulation and the Recycling

To protect communities and support the elimination of the most toxic and unnecessary plastics, plastics with a #3, #6, or #7 will no longer be accepted in Boulder County.

Plastic is everywhere—in our oceans, our environment, and even our bodies. Recycling alone could not possibly solve this crisis. It is crucial to reduce plastic production, beginning with the elimination of the most unnecessary, toxic, and non-recyclable plastics. In their place, we need to innovate reuse solutions wherever possible, and ensure that any remaining packaging is authentically recyclable or compostable.

Thankfully, there is growing momentum from environmental groups, recycling industries, and even plastic manufacturers, as well as local, state, and federal policy, aimed at doing just that. As a result, the worst and most toxic plastics, #3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC), #6 polystyrene (PS), or #7 polycarbonate (PC), may soon be out of circulation. To support these efforts, Boulder County, the owner of the Boulder County Recycling Center (BCRC), and Eco-Cycle, the nonprofit operator of the facility, will no longer accept plastics with #3, #6, or #7 on them.

Elimination of Problematic and Unnecessary Plastics 

In 2022, a group of more than 100 companies, governments, nonprofits, and public sector organizations comprising the U.S. Plastics Pact released an unprecedented statement: the Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List. Together, they identified a list of plastics and additives so bad even the plastic industry agreed they should no longer be made. Participating industry groups voluntarily agreed to eliminate production of items on the list by 2025, which includes plastic cutlery, stirrers and straws, intentionally added PFAS, carbon black plastic, #3 PVC, #6 PS, and more. 

Simultaneously, in 2022, Eco-Cycle worked to help pass Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in Colorado for packaging and paper, a statewide policy that holds producers financially and operationally responsible for a product’s management throughout its life cycle. Producer Responsibility requires producers of packaging and printed paper to pay dues based on the type and amount of material they put into Colorado markets. It utilizes a concept called “eco-modulation,” where the use of product materials that are considered harmful to the environment are disincentivized through higher dues that the producer must pay into the EPR system, and the use of materials that are considered better for the environment are rewarded by having lower dues required. For example, a highly recyclable product like an unwrapped aluminum can might have the lowest fees, while a package that is more toxic and not recyclable will pay more. The funds raised from the program will support recycling infrastructure, collections, education, and reuse and refill innovations. 

Implementation of the policy will include a list of materials that are readily recyclable. Materials that are not on that list will incur higher financial costs. There is likely to be much overlap between the list of materials deemed problematic and unnecessary by the industry group and those not deemed recyclable by the state of Colorado’s EPR program, including #3, #6, and #7 plastics. Eco-Cycle has long advocated for the elimination of these plastics and educated the community to avoid them. In support of this long-held stance, plastics with #3, #6, or #7 will no longer be accepted in Boulder County.

What to Expect in Boulder County 

Most plastics with numbers #3, #6, or #7 are already listed as a “no” on the recycling guidelines for Boulder County, and they represent a tiny percentage of incoming recyclable material at the facility. You will usually find a #6 PS on polystyrene foam (often referred to as Styrofoam), for example, which has never been accepted at the BCRC facility, and in fact, as of January 1, 2024, polystyrene foam is banned from distribution at Colorado restaurants. A #3 PVC plastic is used most prevalently in vinyl shower curtains, plastic food wrap, inflatable goods, pet toys, etc., all of which have never been recyclable in Boulder County. 

The least toxic and most recyclable plastics represent the majority of what we accept in our guidelines: bottles, tubs, jugs, jars, clamshells, and some rigid plastics labeled #1 PETE, #2 HDPE, or #5 PP. 

Most plastic bottles, tubs, jugs, jars, and clamshells will have a #1, #2, or #5 on them, but on rare occasions may have a resin code of #3 PVC, #6 PS, or #7 PC (or “OTHER”) and should be avoided. In addition to not putting these items in your recycling cart, you can reduce their circulation by being mindful about not purchasing them. 

The Problem with #3, #6, and #7 Plastics 

These plastic resin types have always been challenging to recycle due to toxicity and having little to no market value.  

Polyvinyl chloride plastic (marked with a #3) is highly toxic at every stage of its life cycle, from production to disposal. PVC is everywhere in your home and office, from flooring to siding, shower curtains to placemats, tablecloths to children’s toys. It is also in some single-use plastic products, including plastic wrap, cooking oil bottles, and food packaging. The primary building block of PVC, vinyl chloride, is a potent carcinogen. America witnessed the impact of vinyl chloride in February 2023 when a train carrying nearly 116,000 gallons of the chemical derailed in East Palestine, Pennsylvania. More than a year later, many residents are still displaced, and cleanup efforts are ongoing. The harmful chemicals in the plastic have also been found to leach into food through contact.

Polystyrene, which can be a rigid plastic, but is often found in its expanded form (often referred to as Styrofoam), is marked with a #6, and is also a toxic plastic. The primary ingredient in polystyrene—styrene—is a likely carcinogen. The expanded foam easily breaks down, entering the environment, wildlife, and even humans. Food-grade polystyrene is commonly found in plastic cups, cutlery, and food containers. NOTE: Eco-Cycle WILL CONTINUE TO ACCEPT #6 block foam (the material used to package large appliances, electronics, etc.) at the Eco-Cycle Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials (CHaRM), though food-grade polystyrene will remain on the list of items that are not accepted at CHaRM. 

The catch-all category #7 plastic resin type refers either to polycarbonate (PC) or anything else in the plastic stream that doesn’t fit within the first six categories (“OTHER”). It is commonly used for stuff like plastic baby bottles and sippy cups, toys for kids and pets, and car parts. Often, #7 PC can contain highly dangerous BPA (Bisphenol A). Lab tests show that BPA appears to copy or disturb the hormone estrogen and affect the reproductive system, which could raise the consumer’s risk for cancer. Plastic #7 has always been challenging to recycle due to slim or nonexistent market demand. NOTE: #7 PLA is different. It refers to plant-based plastics, often designed to be compostable (but not recyclable). 

Ultimately, the elimination of these problematic plastics from circulation due to voluntary efforts from industry and government regulations reflects a growing global momentum to protect our communities from plastic pollution. Plastic types #3, #6, and #7 are the worst of the bunch and we wave them goodbye with enthusiasm as we progress toward a Zero Waste, circular economy.