How to Recycle Water Bottles

Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on January 16, 2023
4 min read

The arrival of the plastic water bottle in the early 1990s changed how much of the world consumed water. Beverage companies started promoting bottled water as a healthier and safer option to tap water, and the bottled water industry grew rapidly. Plastic bottles made it convenient to enjoy water and other refreshing drinks on the go. Soon, though, people started to see the harmful effects these single-use plastic bottles had on the environment.

Today, most people are aware of the importance of water bottle recycling, but it's not always clear how to recycle water bottles, what types of bottles can be recycled, and how exactly recycling can help the environment.

Whether or not you can recycle water bottles depends on the type of water bottle you use. A recycling label on a plastic bottle doesn't always mean it can be recycled. 

There are two types of plastics: thermoset and thermoplastics. Thermoset plastics are made of polymers (large molecules made of repeating smaller units) formed by chemical bonds that can’t be reversed. Once these plastics are molded, they can’t be broken down, which means they are non-recyclable. 

Thermoplastics, on the other hand, can be melted and remolded into newer materials. Any item using this type of plastic can be recycled.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a type of strong and lightweight plastic that’s widely used to make water bottles. Unlike other plastics, PET is 100% recyclable. Many American beverage companies have made the switch to PET plastic to bottle their beverages.

Plastics are classified into different groups based on how recyclable they are. Resin Identifying Codes (RICs) from #1 to #7 designate the type of plastic used. Plastics with RIC code #1 are the most recyclable and include PET bottles. At the other end of the spectrum, plastics with RIC code #7 include non-recyclables and corn-based plastics, which can’t be recycled. Keep an eye on the label on your plastic to understand what impact it can have on the environment.

It's also important to know that dirty plastics can’t be recycled. You must always clean your plastic bottles before discarding them. While some recycling factories clean plastic bottles before heating them, most don’t even consider unclean plastic for their processes. This is because they need to avoid introducing any impurities or possible toxins into the recycled plastic bottles. Dirty plastics end up increasing the burden in landfills.

If you want to recycle your plastic bottles, first make sure they are clean. Then, put them in a designated blue recycling bin, which holds all plastic materials, including water bottles. Place the bin curbside before the scheduled pick-up time in your area.

You can also drop off water bottles at specific locations. Check with your municipal office about designated drop-off locations in your area. Some states will have additional conditions before accepting water bottles for recycling. For example:

  • While some states accept bottle caps only when they’re screwed on tightly to bottles, others ask you to place the bottles and caps separately in the blue bin.
  • Certain states don’t accept bottles that were used to store automotive products and dangerous materials like motor oil and pesticides.
  • If some of the items in your waste lot are biodegradable, certain states ask that you not include them in the blue bin, and instead choose other forms of recycling.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), only around 9% of all plastic waste is recycled. Consumer plastics — such as soda bottles, water bottles, and milk jugs — have a slightly better rate of recycling at 30%, but there’s still far more we can do.

One of the main challenges is that most plastic bottles are not designed with recycling in mind. Instead, they’re often manufactured for one-time use, which puts a heavy strain on the ecosystem. To some manufacturers, it's not worth the extra effort to reuse recycled plastic.

The major increase in the use of plastics worldwide has highlighted the urgent need to recycle and reuse plastic water bottles. Here are some interesting facts about water bottle recycling that point to the importance of reducing plastics and recycling when possible:

  • More than 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away every day in the U.S.
  • More than 90% of all U.S. households can recycle plastic bottles by dropping them off at their curb or using other local recycling programs.
  • Manufacturing new bottles or other items with recycled PET uses only two-thirds of the energy required to manufacture the same product from virgin raw materials. Using recycled PET also lowers greenhouse gas emissions.
  • In addition to making new water bottles, recycled plastic is also used for manufacturing items such as playground equipment, apparel, car parts, and plastic lumber for outdoor decks.
  • When recycling a single bottle, you save the same amount of energy it takes to light a 60-watt bulb for six hours.
  • Out of all the plastics used in the U.S., PET water bottle packaging accounts for only 0.92%. The higher this number, the lower the ecological impact.
  • The constant innovation to produce more environmentally friendly products has led to the development of lightweight plastics for water bottle packaging. Between 2000 and 2014, the average weight of a half-liter plastic water bottle reduced by 51% and weighed only 9.25 grams. The production of these lightweight bottles helped save 2.8 billion kilograms of PET resin during this period.
  • While glass and some metals can be recycled endlessly, the same can’t be said about plastics. A single piece of plastic is usually recycled around two to three times before its quality deteriorates. This is because the long-chain polymers in plastics keep breaking down and getting shorter with every heating cycle, thus losing their structural integrity. Sometimes small quantities of virgin plastic are mixed with recycled plastic to improve its quality.

Show Sources

Ann Arbor, Michigan: “What to do with plastic bottles.”
Consumer Reports: “Smarter: Which Plastics Are Actually Recyclable?”
Container Recycling Institute: “Plastic water bottles should no longer be a wasted resource.”
Enfield, Connecticut: “Recycling Information.”
Health Promotion Perspectives: "Tendencies towards bottled drinking water consumption: Challenges ahead of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste management."
International Bottled Water Association: “Recycling.”
Montgomery County, Maryland: “How to recycle / dispose plastic bottles, containers, tubs, and lids.”
National Geographic: “7 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling).”
PET Resin Association: "About PET.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "Plastics: Material-Specific Data."

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