Plastic Recycling Symbols Explained

Posted on February 22, 2020 | Last Updated On: September 14th, 2020 by

At this point, it might seem like just about everything these days is made of plastic. You’ll find plastic in toys, food utensils, packaging, clothing, even your automobile. While versatile and convenient, this material is also clogging up the waterways, littering the streets and suffocating marine life. In fact, a study showed each year 35% of plastic packaging winds up in the planet’s oceans.

While many plastics are readily recycled, a whopping 91% of it is not recycled and never been, reports National Geographic. But, with all the various symbols and guidelines for recycling and differing rules and regulations regarding recycling in towns and cities, it can become extremely confusing to know exactly what you can recycle and how.

So, to help, here you’ll learn about the different types of plastic recycling symbols and what they mean. First, you need to know that on most plastic packaging products, including containers and jars, you’ll see a recycling logo printed typically on the bottom. The recycling logo consists of a number in the middle. It may also sometimes contain letters underneath the number which is stamped into the plastic.

1. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

You’ll notice a “1” inside a triangle, which means this plastic is polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

PET is a common type of plastic used in consumer products. You find it often in soda and water bottles as well as in some packaging. It’s made for single-use applications, since using it repeatedly could increase the risk of bacterial growth and leaching. PET plastic is hard to decontaminate and it requires harsh chemicals to clean it. PET might also leach carcinogens.

While PET plastic is indeed recyclable, in the U.S., only 25% of PET bottles are recycled today. This plastic is crushed down and turned into small flakes. These then are reprocessed and spun into polyester fiber or made into new PET bottles. The spun polyester fiber is used for making textiles like: 

  • Carpets
  • Fleece garments
  • Life jackets
  • Stuffing for pillows
  • Similar products

You should recycle PET plastic products, but not reuse them.

Replace disposable food packaging with a reusable alternative and switch to reusable drink containers in order to use less PET plastic.

2. Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE

You’ll see a “2” inside a triangle, which means it’s high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic.

HDPE is another versatile plastic that has many uses, particularly for packaging. It’s readily recyclable into various things and it carries a low leaching risk.

You can find HDPE in things like:

  • Bleach, household cleaner and detergent bottles
  • Milk jugs
  • Shampoos bottles
  • Motor oil bottles
  • Shopping and trash bags
  • Cereal box liners
  • Yogurt and butter tubs

It’s recycled into things like floor tile, lumber, pens, drainage pipes, recycling containers and more.

3.  Vinyl (V or PVC)

You’ll notice a “3” inside a triangle, which means this plastic is polyvinyl chloride or vinyl.  You’ll find vinyl in things like:

  • Medical equipment
  • Piping
  • Certain clear food packaging
  • Wire jacketing
  • Detergent
  • Cooking oil
  • Siding
  • Shampoo bottles
  • Window cleaner

You rarely recycle vinyl. In fact, only a very tiny percentage of PVC is recycled into cables, mats, mud flaps, flooring and more.

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

You’ll notice a “4” inside a triangle, which means this plastic is low-density polyethylene (LDPE).

You’ll find LDPE in things like:

  • Squeezable bottles
  • Dry cleaner garment bags
  • Packaged bread plastic bags
  • Shrink wraps

Most of today’s grocery store plastic bags are made with LDPE plastic. Some furniture and clothing also uses LDPE.

It’s not as toxic as other types of plastics and fairly safe for use. You don’t usually recycle it, but there are more plastic recycling programs gearing up to handle LDPE plastic these days. LDPE plastic, when recycled, is used for garbage can liners, plastic lumber, floor tiles and landscaping boards. LDPE recycled products aren’t as rigid or hard as those constructed from HDPE recycled plastic.

LDPE plastic products are reusable, but you can’t always recycle them. You’ll have to check with the collection service in your local area to see if they’re taking LDPE plastic materials for recycling.

You can try and use fabric alternatives or cloth bags to replace your plastic grocery bags, if you want to help cut down on LDPE consumption. 

5.  Polypropylene (PP)

You’ll notice a “5” inside a triangle, which means this plastic is polypropylene (PP). It’s often found in:

  • Straws
  • Medication bottles
  • Syrup bottles
  • Ketchup bottles
  • Bottle caps
  • Some yogurt containers

It’s rarely recycled. When you do recycle it, it can be made into things like rakes, bins, ice scrapers, trays, brooms, signal lights and more.

6. Polystyrene (PS)

You’ll notice a “6” inside a triangle, which means this plastic is polystyrene (PS). Chances are you’ve heard it better referred to as Styrofoam. You’ll find PS in various disposable items like:

  • Carry-out containers
  • Plates and cups
  • Meat trays
  • Egg cartons

It’s typically considered to be hard to recycle, and some U.S. municipalities have banned its use. PS can be recycled into containers and packaging, insulation, light switch plates and foam packing.

7. Miscellaneous

Various plastic resins not classified under any of the above symbol categories are lumped together in a miscellaneous “7” polycarbonate group. It’s a hard plastic that could potentially leach hormone disruptors. Also falling into this category is polylactic acid (PLA).

You can find these materials in things like:

  • Computer and iPod cases
  • Three and five-gallon water bottles
  • Nylon
  • Certain food containers
  • Displays and signs
  • “Bullet-proof” materials

You never used to normally recycle number 7 plastics, but these days, many curbside programs are now taking them. They can be recycled into custom-made products and plastic lumber.

ReuseThisBag.com is a premier supplier of custom tote bags, including eco-friendly, woven bags and non-woven polypropylene bags, jute bags, cotton bags, laminated bags, other material types. You’ll find that we use 100% recyclable materials in many of our bags too. 

About the Author

Douglas Lober Chief Product Specialist

Doug Lober is Co-Founder and Chief Product Specialist for ReuseThisBag.com. Lober is a passionate environmentalist with roots in the Southern California surf culture. Over the last 15 years, Lober has launched and supported a number of environmental initiatives around the land, sea, and air. Today, he continues to provide and support the use of eco-friendly promotional products for small, medium, and Fortune 500 companies. You can learn more about his extensive background in the industry on Linkedin.com, Quora.com, Instagram.com, Twitter and Alignable.com

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