What Do Recycling Symbols on Plastics Mean?

The confusion over what we can and cannot recycle continues to confound consumers. Plastics are especially troublesome, as different types of plastic require different processing to be reformulated and re-used as raw material.

The plastic recycle codes, also referred to as recycle symbols standards, were developed by The Society of the Plastics Industry as a uniform way to identify the type of plastic used in the manufacturing of products and packing. The plastic recycle codes system consists of a number enclosed within the universal recycling symbol, which is a triangle formed by three arrows. The number inside the recycling symbol indicates the type of plastic polymer the item is made from. Because it is so important to recycle plastic, you’ll find this symbol and number on almost everything made out of plastic.

Number 1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE)

The easiest and most common plastics to recycle are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PETE). This plastic is a clear, hard plastic most commonly used for single-use bottled beverages because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. This symbol is also found on salad dressing bottles, food jars, vegetable oil containers and some prepared/frozen food containers. Some cosmetic containers are made from this as well. Once it has been processed by a recycling facility, PETE can become fiberfill for winter coats, sleeping bags and life jackets.

Number 2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE)

HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses. It is ideal for packaging products that have a short shelf-life like milk and juice jugs. It is also found in detergent bottles, butter tubs, and shampoo containers.  HDPE has good chemical resistance, which allows it to be used in containers holding household or industrial chemicals. Some items it can be found in once recycled are pens, recycling containers, laundry detergent bottles, floor tile, drainage pipe and fencing.

Number 3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

This is less stiff than HDPE but has many of the same uses; although, it is usually more difficult to recycle than HDPE. It can be found in detergent and shampoo bottles as well as the primary plastic in cooking oil bottles and food wrap. PVC is tough and weathers well, so it is also commonly used for piping, siding and similar applications. PVC is not considered safe to cook food near so if you must cook with PVC, don’t let the plastic touch food. It can be recycled into such items as paneling, mudflaps, flooring and mats.

Number 4. Low density polyethylene (LDPE)

This is a soft, flexible plastic. It is used to make grocery bags, squeezable bottles, bread bags and some food wraps. Additionally it can often be found in furniture and carpet. It can be recycled into trash cans and liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling and floor tile.

Number 5. Polypropylene (PP)

This is a plastic commonly found in yogurt containers, caps, Tupperware, medicine bottles, ketchup, syrup bottles and straws. It also has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that must accept hot liquid.  If PP plastics are recycled they are found in items such as brooms, racks, battery casing and battery cables.

Number 6. Polystyrene (PS)

Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foam products, also known as Styrofoam. It is commonly found in disposable coffee cups, disposable cutlery, meat trays, and take-out food containers. It can be reprocessed into many items, including DVD cases, foam packaging, egg cartons and rigid foam insulation.

Number 7

Number 7 represents miscellaneous plastics and various combinations of the abovementioned plastics or from unique plastic formulations not commonly used. Sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays and certain food containers can be found with this symbol. Polycarbonate (PC) is in this category and is used in large plastic containers such as water cooler bottles and, up until recently, baby bottles.

It is important to know that the plastic recycle codes system is based solely on the type of plastic and does not identify the density in which it is present in any given item. Some curb-side recycling programs and recycling facilities only accept high-density plastic, which means the coding system can only be used loosely as a guide for what is recyclable. Though the summary here does provide some insight into what plastics are recyclable, it is always best to call or consult your recycling centers website to find out exactly what is accepted.

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