Recycling Symbols on Plastics – What Do Recycling Codes on Plastics Mean

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Sometimes it seems like everything in modern America is plastic. The versatile material is found in our cars, toys, packaging, clothing, housewares, cookware and more – but it also litter our streets, clog our waterways and choke marine life. In fact, a 2016 study found that 32% of plastic packaging ends up in our oceans each year.

Many plastics can be easily recycled, but according to National Geographic, 91% of plastics have never even been recycled. With all of the different rules and symbols, it can be confusing for consumers to understand exactly what each plastic recycling symbol means and how to recycle it. While the universal symbol for plastic resin (three chasing arrows forming a triangle) remains the same, the numbers one through seven inside make a significant difference. FYI: Just because a product has the hunting arrows symbol on it doesn’t mean it’s recyclable – it’s just an indicator of the type of plastic.

Here at the Good Housekeeping Institute, our team is passionate about sustainability and the environment. Whether it’s helping you decode green claims or sharing the winners of our sustainable packaging and sustainable innovation awards, we’re here to help you make smarter decisions for your home. and the environment. First, read recycling tips from our environmental experts.

How to know which plastics can be recycled

Each city has different recycling programs, so you’ll often need to check your location’s rules to find out exactly what you can recycle. Plus, “there are times when your recycling program can change what it collects,” says Mike Brown of Brown and Wilmanns Environmental, one of our environmental consultants. Even though there’s no way for your city to recycle a certain material, he says there’s still a chance they can pick it up anyway and store it or get rid of it.

Of course, the symbols themselves also need to be explained. Here’s what each plastic recycling symbol means, as well as examples it is found in and how to recycle it.

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Plastic recycling symbol # 1: PET or PETE

PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common plastic for single-use bottled beverages because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. It presents a low risk of leaching of degradation products. Its recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), even though the material is in high demand by manufacturers.

Find in: Soft drinks, water, ketchup and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; vinaigrette and vegetable oil containers

How to recycle it: PET or PETE can be picked up at most curbside recycling programs as long as it has been emptied and rinsed of all food. When it comes to caps, our environmental professionals say it’s probably best to throw them in the trash (as they’re usually made of a different type of plastic), unless your city says explicitly that you can throw them in the trash. It is not necessary to remove the labels from the bottles as the recycling process separates them.

Recycled in: Fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, rugs, paneling, straps, bottles and food containers (as long as the recycled plastic meets purity standards and does not contain hazardous contaminants)


Plastic Recycling Symbol # 2: HDPE

HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a versatile plastic with multiple uses, especially in packaging. It has a low risk of leaching and is easily recyclable into many types of products.

Find in: Milk jugs; juice bottles; bottles of bleach, detergent and other household cleaning products; shampoo bottles; garbage cans and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; butter and yogurt trays; cereal box liners

How to recycle it: HDPE can often be salvaged through most curbside recycling programs, although some only allow collared containers. Fragile plastics (like grocery bags and plastic wrap) generally cannot be recycled, but some stores collect and recycle them.

Recycled in: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tiles, drainpipe, wood, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fences, shampoo bottles


Plastic recycling symbol # 3: PVC or V

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl) are strong and weather resistant, so they are commonly used for things like piping and coating. PVC is also inexpensive, so it is found in many products and packaging. Since chlorine is part of PVC, it can lead to the release of highly hazardous dioxins during manufacturing. Remember to never burn PVC, as it releases toxins.

Find in: Shampoo and cooking oil bottles, blister packaging, metal sheath, siding, windows, piping

How to recycle it: PVC and V can rarely be recycled, but they are accepted by some wood plastics manufacturers. If you need to get rid of any of these materials, ask your local waste management service if you need to put it in the trash or drop it off at a collection center.

Recycled in: Bridges, paneling, mudguards, gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, carpets


Plastic recycling symbol # 4: LDPE

LDPE (low density polyethylene) is a flexible plastic with many applications. Historically, it has not been accepted by most US recycling programs, but more and more communities are starting to accept it.

Find in: Compressible bottles; bread, frozen foods, dry cleaning and shopping bags; tote bags; furniture

How to recycle it: LDPE is not often recycled in curbside programs, but some communities may accept it. This means that anything made with LDPE (like toothpaste tubes) can be thrown in the trash. Just as we mentioned under HDPE, plastic shopping bags can often be returned to stores for recycling.

Recycled in: Liners and trash cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping fasteners, floor tiles


Plastic Recycling Symbols # 5: PP

PP (polypropylene) has a high melting point, so it is often chosen for containers that will hold a hot liquid. It is increasingly accepted by recyclers.

Find in: Certain yoghurt containers, syrup and medicine bottles, caps, straws

How to recycle it: PP can be recycled through some curbside programs, remember to make sure there is no food left inside. Loose caps are best thrown in the trash, as they easily slip through screens during recycling and end up as trash anyway.

Recycled in: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, car battery boxes, ice scrapers, landscape edging, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays


Plastic recycling symbol # 6: PS

PS (polystyrene) can be made into rigid products or foam – in the latter case, it is popularly known under the brand name Styrofoam. Styrene monomer (a type of molecule) can get into food and is a possible human carcinogen, while styrene oxide is classified as a probable carcinogen. The material has long been on conservationists’ hit lists as it has spread widely throughout the landscape and is notoriously difficult to recycle. Most places still won’t accept it as a foam because it contains 98% air.

Find in: Disposable plates and cups, meat platters, egg cartons, take out containers, aspirin bottles, CD cases

How to recycle it: Little recycling at the curb programs accept PS as a rigid plastic (and many manufacturers have switched to PET instead). Since foam products tend to break into smaller pieces, you should place them in a bag, squeeze the air out and tie it up before putting it in the trash to prevent the granules from scattering.

Recycled in: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam wrap, shipping containers


Plastic Recycling Symbol # 7: Miscellaneous

A wide variety of plastic resins that do not fit into the previous categories are grouped together in this one. Polycarbonate is the number seven plastic, and it’s the hard plastic that worried parents after studies showed it to be a hormone disruptor. PLA (polylactic acid), made from plants and carbon neutral, also falls into this category.

Find in: Three and five gallon water bottles, bulletproof materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, some food containers, nylon

How to recycle it: These other plastics are usually not recycled, so don’t expect your local supplier to accept them. The best option is to visit your municipality’s website for specific instructions.

Recycled in: Plastic lumber and custom products

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