Recycling symbols and their meanings

What you can and can’t recycle based on recycling symbols

The environment has seen a large increase in plastic pollution over recent years. Plastic has been found in waterways, landfills, oceans, and beaches in alarming quantities. The natural characteristics of plastic make it hard to biodegrade, so it is important that they get recycled. Here is some information about common recycling symbols and their meanings.

recycling symbols
Gary Anderson in 1970 and his original design of the recycling logo CC BY-SA 3.0

There are 7 types of recyclables which are distinguished by a number (1-7) which is surrounded by the recycling logo.

50px-Resin-identification-code-1-PETE.svg Plastic #1 – PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

  • These plastics are Picked up by most curbside recycling programs, plastic #1 is usually clear and used to make soda and water bottles. Some consider it safe, but this plastic is known to allow bacteria to accumulate, and is known to leach phthalates.
  • PETE is found mostly in soda bottles, water bottles, salad dressing containers, mouthwash bottles, and peanut butter containers.
  • Plastic #1 is recycled into tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, fiber, and polar fleece.

Plastic #1  is highly recyclable so make sure to put them in a recycling bin to help minimize the amount of plastic that makes its way into oceans and landfills.

50px-U+2674_DejaVu_Sans.svg Plastic #2 – HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)

  • Plastic #2 is usually opaque and also picked up by most curbside recycling programs. This plastic is also considered to be safe, and has a lower risk of leaching than the #1 PETE plastic.
  • It can be found in milk jugs, household cleaner containers, juice bottles, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, detergent bottles, motor oil bottles, yogurt tubs, and butter containers and toiletries.
  • Plastic #2 can be recycled into pens, picnic tables, recycling containers, benches, fencing, and detergent bottles.

50px-Resin-identification-code-3-V.svg Plastic #3 – V or PVC (Vinyl)

  • Plastic #3 is used to make plumbing pipes, food wraps, and detergent bottles, and is seldom accepted by curbside recycling programs. These plastics used to, and still may, contain phthalates, which are linked to numerous health issues ranging from developmental problems to miscarriages. They also contain DEHA, which can be carcinogenic with long-term exposure. DEHA has also been linked to loss of bone mass and liver problems. Don’t cook with or burn this plastic.
  • It can found in shampoo bottles, clear food packaging, cooking oil bottles, medical equipment, piping, and windows.
  • This plastic is recycled into paneling, flooring, speed bumps, decks, and roadway gutters.

50px-Resin-identification-code-4-LDPE.svg Plastic #4 – LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene)

  • Low density polyethylene is most found in squeezable bottles, shopping bags, clothing, carpet, frozen food, bread bags, and some food wraps. Curbside recycling programs haven’t been known to pick up this plastic, but more are starting to accept it. Plastic #4 rests among the recycling symbols considered to be safe.
  • This plastic is recycled into compost bins, paneling, trash can liners and cans, floor tiles, and shipping envelopes.

50px-Resin-identification-code-5-PP.svg Plastic #5 – PP (Polypropylene)

  • Becoming accepted by curbside recycle programs, plastic #5 is also one of the safer plastics to look for.
  • It is typically found in yogurt containers, medicine bottles, ketchup bottles, and syrup bottles.
  • Polypropylene is recycled into brooms, auto battery cases, bins, pallets, signal lights, ice scrapers, and bicycle racks, to name a few.

50px-Resin-identification-code-6-PS.svg Plastic #6 – PS (Polystyrene)

  • Polystyrene is Styrofoam, which is notorious for being difficult to recycle, and thus, bad for the environment. This kind of plastic also poses a health risk, leaching potentially toxic chemicals, especially when heated. Most recycling programs won’t accept this type of plastic.
  • Plastic #6 is found in compact disc cases, egg cartons, meat trays, and disposable plates and cups.
  • It is recycled into egg cartons, vents, foam packing, and insulation.
  • It’s difficulty in recycling makes it a very bad candidate for the enviornment. Alot of these materials can be seen in landfills and washing up on beaches. Do not heat or burn this material.

50px-Resin-identification-code-7-OTHER.svg Plastic #7 – Other, Miscellaneous

  • All of the plastic resins that don’t fit into the other categories are placed in the number 7 category. It’s a mix bag of plastics that includes polycarbonate, which contains the toxic bisphenol-A (BPA). These plastics should be avoided due to possibly containing hormone disruptors like BPA, which has been linked to infertility, hyperactivity, reproductive problems, and other health issues.
  • Plastic #7 is found in sunglasses, iPod cases, computer cases, nylon, 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, and bullet-proof materials.
  • It is recycled into plastic lumber and other custom-made products.

Which Recycling Numbers to Avoid:

In the end, it’s really best to avoid using all plastics if you’re able to. But at the very least:

  • Avoid recycling symbols 3, 6, and 7. While Number 1 is considered safe, it is also best to avoid this plastic.
  • Look for symbols 2, 4, and 5, as these plastics are considered to be safest. These are the plastics to look for in terms of human and animal consumption.

To help reduce the need for plastics, consider buying  glass or investing in a high quality metal canteen, and get a water filtration system to get your drinking water from. Most of recycling ambiguity comes from plastics and the many different types that exist. As for other recyclables, metals, glass, and paper are all readily recycled.