Profiles in Garbage: High-Density Polyethylene Bottles and Containers

Profiles in Garbage: High-Density Polyethylene Bottles and Containers

HDPE resin is produced from the chemical compound ethylene. HDPE bottles are blow-molded and are used for milk and other liquid products, such as detergents, shampoos, motor oil, drugs and cosmetic products. Most milk and water bottles use a natural-colored HDPE resin. Bottles used for other products often have colorants added to the resin. Injection-molded HDPE containers are used for products such as margarine and yogurt.

More HDPE bottles are produced than other containers. HDPE resin can also be used to make bottle and container caps, and flexible packaging such as sacks and trash bags.  HDPE is also used in many non-packaging products.

Bottles and containers comprise 62 percent of HDPE packaging products, and 40 percent of all HDPE products. HDPE bottles and containers began displacing heavier metal, glass and paper packages in the 1970s. Although the amount of HDPE used in bottles and containers has tripled since 1980, its garbage market share is still less than 1 percent. All HDPE products have a garbage market share of 2.2 percent. Rigid plastic bottles have been losing market share to flexible packages, with a resulting decline in the use of HDPE rigid bottles.

Note: This profile only covers HDPE bottles and containers. 


  • 2.19 million tons or 0.8 percent by weight.*
  • 0.8 million tons of milk and water bottles.*
  • 1.39 million tons of containers for other products.*
  • 13.95 lbs. per person per year.*
  • 510,000 tons or a 23 percent recycling rate.*
  • 220,000 tons of milk and water bottles or a 28.2 percent recycling rate.*
  • 290,000 tons of other bottles or a 20.6 percent  recycling rate.*
  • 523,000 tons or a 32 percent recycling rate (industry data 2013).
  • 220,000 tons of milk and water bottles or a 28 percent recycling rate in 2013.
  • 303,000 tons of other bottles or a 35 percent recycling rate.
  • #2 in the plastic resin code.

Recycled Content

  •  Varies by end product, but is increasingly common in non-food containers.


  • HDPE does not compost.

Incinerated or Landfilled

  • 1.68 million tons or 1.02 percent of discarded MSW by weight.*
  • Highly combustible with 18,690 BTUs per lb., more than three times the average for MSW.
  • Not biodegradable in landfills.

Landfill Volume

  • 6.3 million cubic yards in 1997
  • 1.5 percent of landfilled MSW in 1997


  • Landfilled milk jugs weigh 355 lbs. per cubic yard (lbs./cy).
  • Loose milk jugs weigh 24 lbs./cy.
  • Flattened milk jugs weigh 65 lbs./cy.
  • Loose, colored HDPE bottles weigh 45 lbs./cy.
  • Bales of HDPE generally weigh 500 to 800 lbs.

Source Reduction

  • “Concentrated” detergents use less HDPE than “unconcentrated” products.
  • An empty 1-gallon milk jug weighs less than 60 grams. In 1970 it weighed 95 grams.

Recycling Markets

  • Non-food bottles, exports, drainage pipe, plastic lumber and other markets.

Recycling End Market Specifications

  • ISRI Scrap Specifications Circular 2014: Baled HDPE Mixed Colored Bottles, Baled HDPE Natural Bottles and Mixed Unsorted 1-7 Bottles and Containers. 
  • The specs allow 2 percent contamination and no free liquids.
  • Injection-molded containers are incompatible with blow-molded bottles in reprocessing operations.


2013 United States National Post-Consumer Plastics Bottle Recycling Report, Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers and American Plastics Council, Washington, D.C.

Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste, 2014

National Recycling Coalition, Measurement Standards and Reporting Guidelines

Scrap Specifications Circular 2014, Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Washington, D.C.

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