Decoding Recycling Symbols: What Each Recycling Sign Means

woman segregating waste for recycling

Recycling symbols have become increasingly important in highlighting the urgency of proper waste management. Over the past 65 years, humanity has produced an astounding 10 billion tons of plastic. Shockingly, only about 9% of this has been recycled. The rest, amounting to nearly 6 billion tons, currently pollutes our environment or occupies landfill space. These figures underscore the critical need for effective plastic recycling symbols and education to enhance recycling efforts globally.

What is the recycling symbol?

The recycling symbol, a universally recognized icon, consists of three chasing arrows. It indicates that a material is recyclable in some locations. Inside this symbol, a number specifies the material type, guiding how and where it can be recycled. The symbol's three arrows represent the essential practices of reduce, reuse, and recycle. Interestingly, the recycling symbol reversed out of a black background signifies that the item is made from recycled materials. However, this doesn't necessarily mean the item is recyclable again.

Plastic Recycling Symbols

 Recycling Number Type of Plastic Common Uses Recycling Guidelines
1 PET or PETE Water and soda bottles, salad dressing containers Accepted by most curbside programs if thoroughly rinsed
2 HDPE Grocery bags, milk jugs, shampoo bottles Plastic bags recycled at stores; other containers picked up by curbside programs
3 PVC and Vinyl (V) Vinyl siding, piping, windows Rarely recycled; check with local waste management
4 LDPE Dry cleaning bags, squeeze bottles, toothpaste tubes Not widely recycled; specific facilities may accept
5 PP Syrup bottles, caps, some food containers Increasingly accepted by curbside programs if clean
6 PS Disposable plates, cups, egg cartons Limited recycling options; requires proper disposal due to fragility
7 Miscellaneous Various plastics including BPA, polycarbonate, bio-based plastics Mostly not recyclable; bio-based plastics might be compostable. Check local guidelines

PET or PETE (Recycling Number 1)

Recycling symbols such as number 1, found on PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) plastics, are common on products like water bottles, soda bottles, and salad dressing containers. Most curbside recycling programs accept these items, but they must be thoroughly rinsed.
Recycled Into: Fiberfill for winter coats, sleeping bags, life jackets, car bumpers, combs, cassette tapes.

HDPE (Recycling Number 2)

HDPE, indicated by the recycling symbol number 2, is used for plastic grocery bags, milk jugs, and shampoo bottles. While plastic bags are typically recycled at grocery stores, curbside programs generally pick up other HDPE containers.
Recycled Into: Plastic crates, lumber, fencing, picnic tables, pipes.

PVC (Recycling Number 3) and V

Number 3 in the recycling symbols marks PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and Vinyl products like siding, piping, and windows. These materials are less commonly recycled, requiring a check with your local waste management authorities.
Recycled Into: (Limited due to recycling challenges) - Traffic cones, floor tiles, non-food containers.

LDPE (Recycling Number 4)

LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene), bearing the number 4 recycling symbol, is found in items like dry cleaning bags and squeeze bottles. These are not widely recycled and may need to be taken to specific facilities if not accepted by local waste management programs.
Recycled Into: Garbage can liners, landscaping boards, floor tiles.

PP (Recycling Number 5)

The 5 recycle symbol on Polypropylene (PP) is seen on syrup bottles, caps, and some food containers. Clean PP items are increasingly accepted in curbside recycling programs, reflecting an expansion in recycling capabilities.
Recycled Into: Auto parts, industrial fibers, carry bags, food containers.

PS (Recycling Number 6)

Number 6 in recycling symbols indicates PS (Polystyrene), used in disposable plates, cups, and egg cartons. Despite its limited recycling options, it's essential to dispose of PS properly, often requiring special handling due to its fragile nature.
Recycled Into: (Limited due to recycling challenges) - Insulation, rulers, foam packing.

Other (Recycling Number 7)

The number 7, a catch-all category in plastic recycling symbols, includes a variety of plastics such as BPA, polycarbonate, and bio-based plastics. Most of these are not recyclable, but bio-based plastics can sometimes be composted. Always check with your local recycling guidelines for these materials.
Recycled Into: (Varies widely) - Plastic lumber, custom-made products.

Paper Recycling

Paper is one of the most commonly recycled materials, with most types being easily processed. Recycling symbols on paper products, such as newspapers, office paper, and cardboard, indicate their recyclability. However, paper that is laminated, wax-coated, or contaminated with food waste is typically not suitable for recycling and should be disposed of properly. Most municipal curbside programs will accept clean paper and cardboard. It's essential to ensure that paper is free from food particles and other contaminants, as these can affect the quality of recycled material.

Glass Recycling

Glass recycling is highly efficient due to glass's ability to be recycled indefinitely without quality degradation. The recycling symbol on glass products indicates they are recyclable. Most glass items can be recycled, provided they are clean and free from contaminants. Before recycling, glass should be thoroughly washed and rinsed. The process of recycling glass significantly reduces the environmental impact compared to producing new glass from raw materials.

Compost vs Recycle: Understanding the Difference

Understanding the difference between composting and recycling is key to effective waste management. The recycling sign directs materials to a process where they are transformed into new products. On the other hand, compostable materials are organic substances that decompose naturally, turning into soil or fertilizer. Non-renewable materials that can't be composted or recycled should be sent to a landfill.

Expert Tips on Recycling Different Materials

Here are some best practices for recycling different materials. These tips from experts can help maximize the effectiveness of your recycling efforts:

  • Cleanliness Matters: Always rinse containers before recycling. Residual food or liquid can contaminate other recyclables, especially paper, making them unsuitable for recycling. It’s important to wear the proper PPE when cleaning recyclables that may contain hazardous chemicals.
  • Know Your Local Rules: Recycling capabilities vary by location. Familiarize yourself with your local recycling program's accepted materials.
  • Flatten Cardboard Boxes: Save space in recycling bins by flattening cardboard boxes. This also helps in the sorting process at recycling facilities.
  • Avoid Bagging Recyclables: Don't put recyclables in plastic bags before tossing them in the bin. Most facilities do not accept bagged recyclables as they can clog machinery.
  • Check Numbers on Plastics: Use the recycling symbols on plastic items as a guide. Not all plastics are recyclable in every program.
  • Separate Lids from Containers: Remove lids and caps from bottles and jars. While the containers might be recyclable, their lids often are made from different, non-recyclable materials.
  • Don't Wishcycle: Avoid "wishcycling" – placing non-recyclable items in the bin hoping they can be recycled. This can hinder the recycling process.
  • Recycle Electronics Responsibly: Electronics should not be disposed of with regular recyclables. Look for special e-waste recycling programs in your area.
  • Handle Hazardous Waste Separately: Materials like batteries, light bulbs, and chemical containers require special handling. Check for local hazardous waste collection events or facilities.
  • Don't Ignore Small Items: Small items like bottle caps and can tabs can often be recycled, but they may need to be handled differently. Check with your local facility.

FAQs on Recycling Symbols

What do the 7 recycling symbols mean?

  1. (PET or PETE): Polyethylene Terephthalate, used in water and soda bottles, generally recyclable.
  2. (HDPE): High-Density Polyethylene, used in milk jugs and detergent bottles, widely recyclable.
  3. (V or PVC): Polyvinyl Chloride, used in plumbing pipes and vinyl flooring, rarely recyclable.
  4. (LDPE): Low-Density Polyethylene, found in grocery bags and cling wrap, not commonly recycled.
  5. (PP): Polypropylene, used in yogurt containers and bottle caps, increasingly recyclable.
  6. (PS): Polystyrene or Styrofoam, used in disposable plates and cups, generally not recyclable.
  7. (Other): Miscellaneous plastics, including bioplastics and large polycarbonate, often not recyclable.

What is the 5 symbol for recycling?

The 5 recycling symbol represents Polypropylene (PP), commonly found in yogurt containers, syrup bottles, and medicine bottles. It's increasingly accepted in recycling programs.

What is the symbol for recycle item?

The symbol for a recyclable item is the universal recycling logo, featuring three chasing arrows in a triangular loop.

Which plastic numbers are recyclable?

Plastic numbers 1 (PETE), 2 (HDPE), and 5 (PP) are commonly recyclable. Availability of recycling for these types can vary based on local facilities.

Which plastic cannot be recycled?

Plastics marked with recycling symbols 3 (PVC), 6 (PS), and some categorized under 7 (Other) are typically not recyclable due to various reasons, including health and environmental concerns.

What does the 3 recycling symbol mean?

The 3 recycling symbol denotes Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), used in items like vinyl flooring and plumbing pipes. PVC is rarely recycled due to its chemical composition and potential health risks.

The material provided in this article is for general information purposes only. It is not intended to replace professional/legal advice or substitute government regulations, industry standards, or other requirements specific to any business/activity. While we made sure to provide accurate and reliable information, we make no representation that the details or sources are up-to-date, complete or remain available. Readers should consult with an industrial safety expert, qualified professional, or attorney for any specific concerns and questions.


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Author: Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.