I want to recycle as much food packaging plastic films as possible (I'm willing to clean and dry them). As far as I know, food packaging films are only made from 3 types of plastic: polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Only PE is recyclable and collected by grocery stores. I can identify PVC film because it sinks in water, but I'm having trouble with the other two types. I only know of one theoretical difference: PE makes a soft rustling noise when crumpled, while PP makes loud crackling noises. This is not helpful in practice because I've seen thick PE film make noises that are just as loud of PP film. Are there any other ways to tell them apart, using only common household objects?

I think thin PE film is also stretchier than thin PP film, but I think thick PE film is non-stretchy, so that doesn't help either.

The films I'm specifically interested in are:

  • Vacuum meat and poultry packaging, like the thick bags whole turkeys and pork ribs come in
  • Vacuum bags for individual frozen seafood portions, like salmon fillets
  • Vacuum packaging for dairy products, e.g. fresh mozzarella and Parmesan wedges

While I'm on the subject, suppose a film is PE; is there any other reason it may not be recyclable? I know frozen vegetable bags can't be recycled because they have a low-temperature additive. I also know stickers and anything that isn't PE need to be removed. Anything else I should watch out for?

Thanks in advance!

  • 1
    Perhaps it differs per country, but here in The Netherlands we also have various compostable plastics used for food packaging. The packaging usually has a logo or text on it so you know it's biodegradable, but otherwise it can be very hard to distinguish it from non-biodegradable plastics.
    – THelper
    Sep 10, 2019 at 11:24
  • 2
    Where does the idea come from, you have to clean your plastics before recycling?
    – Erik
    Sep 12, 2019 at 8:14
  • It says clearly on every plastic bag collection bin that the bags have to be clean and dry.
    – kitkat
    Sep 14, 2019 at 3:46
  • In Australia the supermarkets accept any plastic bag in their recycling collections and just say "free from obvious contamination, do not wash", but they are degraded into generic lumps of plastic as bollards and park furniture rather than being recycled: redcycle.net.au/faqs
    – Móż
    Mar 4, 2021 at 23:40

2 Answers 2


If you are planning to do it on a big scale, look into acquiring an FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared) spectrometer. There are portable ones you can carry.

Polypropylene has a remarkably different infrared spectra to the polyethylene spectra so they can be easily distinguished.

  • Sadly I'm just a regular person trying to recycle responsibly, but thanks!
    – kitkat
    Jun 29, 2023 at 14:46

PP and PE are the same chemical family: olefins. So they can be recycled similarly. There is probably more difference between high density PE and low density PE than between PE and PP.

  • Wow, that is AWESOME news! Are you absolutely sure about this? Because my recycling bag o' bags is about to get a lot of PP in it if that’s true :)
    – kitkat
    Sep 10, 2019 at 19:18
  • 3
    After wandering around on the internet , I conclude it is difficult to get straight answers. To recycle into something like the original , ALL plastics must be kept separate , using the little ASTM triangle with the number inside : 1-PET , 2-HDPE, 3- PVC ,4- LDPE , 5- PP , 6- polystyrene, 7- everything else. Even high density and low density PE are different enough that they are separated. I conclude much recycle plastic is just mixed and used as fuel but no one will admit it. Our town puts all plastics in one container , and it can't be separated by machine. Sep 10, 2019 at 20:37
  • Plastic in a single-stream bin is probably an ungodly mess, yeah. Plastic in a bin specifically for shopping bags is hopefully more pure. I've never seen a plastic shopping bag that's not unequivocally LDPE.
    – kitkat
    Sep 10, 2019 at 22:05

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