Recycling Symbols Explained

Recycling Symbols Explained

Seven Types of Plastic

Recycling plastics can be confusing. There are seven categories of plastic with a wide range of colors and shapes. Each one is unique and serves a particular purpose. And depending on their chemical composition, certain forms of plastic are reusable, and others are not. Some can be recycled, and others must be disposed of differently. It can get very complicated since each local recycling facility collects different types of plastic, and not all plastics are collected.

You'll find that the seven categories of plastic are sometimes marked with little numbers inside triangles. These symbols are part of the Resin Identification Coding System which was developed solely to identify the plastic resin used in a manufactured product, but not their recyclability. This coding system was initially created in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. (SPI) and is now managed by ASTM International. As you look for these symbols, you may notice that only some plastic items are clearly labeled. This is because the recycling code system is a voluntary industry system and not federal law.

Here we provide an overview and quick guide to help you sort your plastic and understand what each of these symbols means. We've also provided some resources that may aid in your quest to recycle your items. Remember that your plastic material is not necessarily recyclable just because it has a recycling symbol. Always check with your local recycling program to confirm what is accepted.

Polyethylene Terephthalate#1 — PET or PETE

Polyethylene Terephthalate

Most Commonly Recycled

What is it? This is a synthetic fiber that is both strong and rigid. It is a member of the polyester family of polymers and the most widely recycled plastic. However, its recycling rate is low, at only 20%.

What Is It Used In? PET or PETE is most often found in bottles, jars, and food containers.

Health Hazards? Avoid reuse. While this plastic is considered safer than most, it is hard to clean and may absorb bacteria and flavors.

How To Recycle It? Most curbside recycling services accept PET or PETE containers if they are empty and rinsed free of food or other contaminants. Before attempting to recycle caps with plastic bottles, you should check with your local recycling program to see if they accept them. Some places may ask that you leave the lids on, some will take the caps but request that you separate them, and some will request that you discard them. This is because the tops might be made from a different type of plastic.

What Is It Recycled Into? PET is commonly melted down and spun into fibers for clothing and carpeting and is also made into fiberfill for insulated clothing, furniture, and pillows.

High-Density Polyethylene#2 — HDPE

High-Density Polyethylene

Most Commonly Recycled

What Is It? This is a light and versatile synthetic resin created from the polymerization of ethylene and found in materials of high strength and moderate stiffness.

What Is It Used In? HDPE is made into grocery bags, milk jugs, heavy-duty bottles for detergents and other household cleaners, toys, and bottle caps.

Health Hazards? HDPE is a safe plastic and has no known health hazards related to household exposure as far as we know.

How To Recycle It? HDPE bottles and containers are standard items to recycle and can usually be picked up by most curbside programs. Most curbside recycling systems do not accept plastic bags, film, and wrap. However, superstores like Target and Walmart, or even your local grocery store, can recycle these items if they are dry and clean. Check out to find a location near you that will collect and recycle these more flimsy plastics.

What Is It Recycled Into? HDPE is recycled into pens, plastic fencing, plastic lumber, decking, picnic tables, trash cans, and bottles.

Polyvinyl chloride or Vinyl#3 — PVC, V

Polyvinyl chloride or Vinyl

Difficult to Recycle

What Is It? PVC or V is considered very tough and used in the building industry because of its rigidity and low flammability. Plasticized PVC may contain phthalates, which have been linked to reproductive health problems and hormonal development.

What Is It Used In? It is generally in commercial products such as pipes, siding, floor tiles, garden hoses, imitation leather upholstery, and shower curtains.

Health Hazards? Many harmful chemicals are produced in PVC manufacturing, disposal, and destruction. A few risks of exposure to these chemicals include lower birth weight, cognitive and behavioral issues in children, weakened immune systems, hormone disruption, cancer, congenital disabilities, and genetic changes. Avoid these plastics whenever possible.

How To Recycle It? This plastic type is tough to recycle, so it is important to check with your local municipal recycler to see if they can make recommendations. You can also check out this list from the Vinyl Institute, which includes a directory of potential #3 recyclers.

What Is It Recycled Into? This type of plastic can be recycled to make cables, mudflaps, paneling, and roadway gutters.

Low-Density Polyethylene#4 — LDPE

Low-Density Polyethylene

Difficult to Recycle

What Is It? LDPE is generally a material of high flexibility with a wide range of uses.

What Is It Used In? Its main applications include squeeze bottles, toys, garbage, grocery bags, and packaging film.

Health Hazards? LDPE is not connected to any known health issues and is considered a safer plastic.

How To Recycle It? Although curbside recycling of LDPE is uncommon, certain localities might accept it. And even if your community says they take #2 and #4 plastics in curbside bins, they are usually referring to hard plastics like bottles and jugs. Avoid attempting to recycle your bags, wrappers, and films at the curb. Most places cannot accept them because they gum up the recycling machinery. We should avoid single-use plastic bags and plastic film as much as possible. Still, if you need to recycle them, most superstores accept #4 plastic shopping bags for recycling alongside regular #2 plastic bags. Check to find a location near you. The sites listed in the Drop-Off Directory only collect clean, dry polyethylene (PE, #2 or #4, if labeled) bags, film, and wrap.

What Is It Recycled Into? LDPE plastics can be turned into shipping envelopes, lumber, floor tiling, and trash can liners.

Polypropylene#5 — PP


Difficult to Recycle

What Is It? PP is used in many plastic products in which toughness, flexibility, lightweight versatility, and heat resistance are necessary.

What Is It Used In? Polypropylene is made into bottles for foods, shampoos, and other household liquids. It's in medicine and syrup bottles, yogurt and cottage cheese containers, disposable diapers, toothbrushes, and drinking straws. It can also be melted and spun into fibers for indoor/outdoor carpeting and upholstery.

Health Hazards? This is considered a safer plastic and has no known health hazards. How To Recycle It? Check with your local municipal recycler for recyclability or if they can make recommendations. And make sure these items are dry and clean before recycling.

What Is It Recycled Into? #5 Plastics can be recycled into battery cables, ice scrapers, brushes, brooms, and rakes.

Polystyrene#6 — PS


Difficult to Recycle

What Is It? Polystyrene is a tough, transparent synthetic resin that can be used to create rigid or foam products. It is a terrible pollutant since it is typically non-recyclable and frequently deteriorates into smaller, lightweight pieces, which can spread easily. Polystyrene makes up roughly 35% of the trash in US landfills.

What Is It Used In? Polystyrene is found in what most of us know as Styrofoam. Avoid polystyrene as best as possible. It's used for disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out containers, packing peanuts, rigid trays and containers, and disposable eating utensils.

Health Hazards? Styrene can leach from polystyrene. It may act as a neurotoxin and cancer-causing carcinogen. Avoid this plastic as much as possible.

How To Recycle It? Polystyrene is hard to recycle and is not commonly accepted by curbside recycling programs. Check with your local UPS Store locations to see if they will take clean foam packing peanuts. You can also check with Pak Mail, which provides consumers with a directory of places to bring packing peanuts for reuse. If you must throw away your foam products, remember that they frequently crumble into smaller pieces. To stop pellets from spreading, put them in a bag, squeeze out the air, and secure them with a tie before throwing them in the trash.

What Is It Recycled Into? #6 plastics can be recycled into foam packaging, insulation, light switch plates, and rulers.

Polycarbonate, BPA, and Other Plastics#7 — OTHER

Polycarbonate, BPA, and Other Plastics

Very Difficult to Recycle to Non-recyclable

What Is It? The #7 category was created to be a catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and other plastics. Polycarbonate (PC) is a tough, transparent synthetic resin with an impact strength considerably higher than most plastics. PLA, or polylactic acid, is a plastic made from plants and also fits into this category. PLA is NOT recyclable but is compostable under the right conditions. These plastics should be certified by BPI before sending them to the proper spot for composting.

What Is It Used In? This plastic is found in 3- and 5-gallon-sized water jugs, water bottles, baby bottles, and other beverage and food containers.

Health Hazards? Polycarbonate plastic contains bisphenol A or BPA. This chemical toxin is linked to developmental, reproductive, and metabolic health problems.

How To Recycle It? Plastic #7 is the most difficult to recycle and is almost always excluded. It is essential to check with your local recyclers about the best practices when dealing with this type of plastic.

What Is It Recycled Into? When recycling is possible, #7 plastics are molded into custom-made products.

Recycling Resources

If your local municipality can't recycle your item, Terracycle can help. Terracycle offers free recycling programs for hard-to-recycle items. Terracycle partners with brands, manufacturers, and retailers that cover the cost of shipping their products and packaging for recycling. You can send in the objects accepted for each program you join. The web page for the program will detail precisely what you can send to TerraCycle to be recycled through that program. For instance, one brand may only sponsor a program to recycle its own products and packaging. Another program will accept products and packaging from other brands as well. To get started, create an account with Terracycle and join as many programs as you like. Collect your stuff and print a prepaid shipping label to send your box of collected products and packaging to be sent back for recycling. Some programs have limited spots, so you may be placed on a waitlist if a program is full. Not to worry, Terracycle also has public collection locations or drop-off points where items are collected to be sent back to TerraCycle for recycling. You can read about the drop-off programs here. The way these collection sites work is simple. Deliver the products that are acceptable to a drop-off location nearby. No shipping or accounts are necessary. The volunteer administrator of the public drop-off point will send the recycling to TerraCycle using a prepaid label. For materials that aren't accepted locally or through the free recycling services, you can purchase a Zero Waste Box from Terracycle. Zero Waste Boxes are great because everything can be recycled!

Another valuable recycling resource is the Earth911 website, which you can use to access its Recycling Locator. Type in your zip code and search your item using the search box or use the quick search suggestions in the lefthand column to find out how and where to recycle your stuff.

Responsible Recycling

Often the burden of responsibility for the post-consumer management of products has fallen on local governments, with recycling programs run and financed by taxpayer dollars. But the cost of managing and recycling these materials is rising, and local governments have no control over how products are created or how simple they are to recycle. Manufacturers have the most immediate control over a product's design and production and whether it can be recycled or not. These producers should absolutely bear more responsibility for making their products recyclable. But too much contamination from soiled materials and non-recyclables is one of the reasons manufacturers commonly reject tons of processed recyclables every year. So make sure your items are clean and dry before tossing them in the recycle bin. If you find your object can't be donated or reused and isn't clearly listed as recyclable, it's best to put it in the trash. Tossing your item in the recycling bin to try to give it a second life only risks contaminating and spoiling a batch of perfectly good recyclables or breaking recycling machinery. Remember, avoiding plastic beats recycling it. You can always make different choices about what you purchase in the future. Making even small recycling changes can make a huge difference!

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