Recycling Symbols Explained

Recycling Symbols Explained

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 because of their chemicals 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 not every plastic item is 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 a little bit better what each of these symbols means. We've also provided some resources that may aid in your quest to recycle your items. Just remember your plastic item is not necessarily recyclable just because it has a recycling symbol on it. 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 pretty low, at only 20%.

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

How To Recycle It? Most curbside recycling services accept PET or PETE containers, as long as 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 caps on, some will accept 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.

Another valuable recycling resource is the Earth911 website, which you can use to access its Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #1 and your zip code.

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 objects like grocery bags, milk jugs, heavy-duty bottles for detergents and other household cleaners, toys, and bottle caps.

How To Recycle It? HDPE bottles and containers are pretty common items to recycle and can usually be picked up by most curbside programs. Most plastic bags, film, and wrap are currently not accepted by the majority of curbside recycling systems. However, super stores like Target and Walmart, or even your local grocery store, might be able to recycle these items if they are dry and clean. Check out bagandfilmrecycling.org to find a location near you that will collect and recycle these more flimsy plastics.

Also, use the Earth911 website's Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #2 and your zip code.

What Is It Recycled Into? HDPE is recycled into objects like 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 when combined with a plasticizer (sometimes in quantities as high as 50%).

How To Recycle It? This plastic type is more difficult 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.

Don't forget the Earth911 website's Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #3 and your zip code.

What Is It Recycled Into? When recycled, this type of plastic can be used 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 and grocery bags, and packaging film.

How To Recycle It? Although curbside recycling of LDPE is uncommon, certain localities might accept it. And even if your community says they accept #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. 

Ideally, we should avoid single-use plastic bags and plastic film as much as possible, but if you need to recycle them, most superstores accept #4 plastic shopping bags for recycling alongside regular #2 plastic bags. Check bagandfilmrecycling.org to find a location near you.

Again, use the Earth911 website's Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #4 and your zip code.

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


Polypropylene

#5 — PP

Polypropylene

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 items like 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.

How To Recycle It? Use the Earth911 website's Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #5 and your zip code.

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


Polystyrene

#6 — PS

Polystyrene

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.

How To Recycle It? Many UPS Store locations will accept clean foam packing peanuts. Pak Mail provides consumers with a directory of places to take packing peanuts for reuse. All Pak Mail locations are part of the Peanut Hotline, a recycle and reuse program started by the Plastic Loose Fill Council. The Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers (AFPR) also provides a national Mail-Back Program for expanded polystyrene (EPS) packaging at these mail-back locations.

Again, use the Earth911 website's Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #6 and your zip code.

If you must throw away your foam products, keep in mind 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

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. Polycarbonate plastic also contains bisphenol A or BPA, a chemical linked to developmental, reproductive, and metabolic health problems. 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.

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

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

Always check the Earth911 website's Recycling Locator. You may find out which places accept this type of plastic by typing in #7 and your zip code.

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

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 it 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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