Plastic Recycling Symbols Explained

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Recycling your plastic is really the last line of defence against it ending up in a landfill, an incinerator, or in the ocean. Whilst many plastics may look like they can be recycled, there is a real possibility they can’t. Here’s why.

Not All Plastics Are Created Equal

You are probably very familiar with the universal recycling symbol, three arrows forming a triangle in what’s called a Mobius Loop. It is meant to indicate that an item can be recycled, although it doesn’t say to what extent, how easily, or how widely it can be processed.

Plastic packaging often has a symbol that looks very similar to this but with numbers and initials. These are called Resin Indication Codes and they indicate the type of plastic has been used. There are seven categories of plastic and some are difficult to recycle whilst some shouldn’t be reused. Check out each category below for more information.

1 – PETE or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

One of the most commonly used plastics, PETE is used in thin, flexible plastic packaging like drinks bottles, squeezable sauce bottles, and food trays. Most PETE plastic is intended for single use as it can leach plastic chemicals into the contents, so you should avoid reusing them. This is also why bottled water has expiration dates on them, it isn’t the water that goes ‘bad’ but the bottle that ‘expires’. PETE plastic is widely recycled and can be made back into bottles, food packaging, and fibres for carpets and fleeces.

Recycle Rating: Good – widely recycled.

How to Reduce: Use a reusable drinks bottle instead of buying bottled water.

2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

Another commonplace plastic, HDPE is hard-wearing and doesn’t break down under sunlight or extreme temperatures. This durable plastic is used for milk bottles, cleaning products, bin bags and cereal box liners. HDPE is also widely recycled and can be made back much of the same products.

Recycle Rating: Good – widely recycled.

How to Reduce: Use bar soap instead of bottled soap.

3 – PVC or V (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC can be made into a rigid or flexible plastic and has been used in a huge variety of ways including pipes, cabling, flooring, toys, bank cards, and clear food packaging. The sheer scale at which PVC is used worldwide is equal only to the risks it poses to our health and the environment.

Harmful chemicals called phthalates are used to make it PVC flexible and these can leach out, contaminating what it comes in contact with. Therefore it should not be used alongside food or for children’s use. PVC doesn’t recycle well or break down or biodegrade safely either. It eventually breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, in a process called granulation, until the pieces are nearly invisible. The pieces can end up contaminating our soil, the ocean, and our food.

Recycle Rating: Bad – difficult to recycle and potentially harmful

How to Reduce: Avoid toys and food containers made with PVC plastic.

4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

Related to HDPE plastic (category 2), LDPE plastic is far less durable and often found in shopping bags, bread bags, dry cleaning covers, and six-pack rings. LDPE can be recycled and made into more of the same, but because it is so lightweight it needs to be collected in large uncontaminated quantities to make it a viable option.

Recycle Rating: OK – can be recycled but only in some areas

How to Reduce: Use fabric shopping bags and reusable food wraps.

5 – PP (Polypropylene)

Both durable and lightweight, polypropylene (PP) is an extremely heat-resistant plastic and resistant against moisture and grease, this makes it ideal for microwavable containers, bottle caps, buckets, packing tape, and car parts. Recycled PP plastic is stripped into fibres and reproduced into brooms, battery cases and bins.

Recycle Rating: OK – can be recycled but only in some areas

How to Reduce: Use a reusable coffee cup instead of single-use cups.

6 – PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene (PS), also called styrofoam, is a cheap and lightweight plastic made into foam or hard plastic. It is used to make foam food trays and foam packaging as well as plastic cups, plates, and cutlery. PS plastic can be difficult to recycle not widely recycled. You should not reuse foam food and drink containers made from PS plastic as the chemicals in it can leach into the contents especially when exposed to heat.

Recycle Rating: Bad – difficult to recycle and potentially harmful

How to Reduce: Use a reusable cutlery set and avoid styrofoam food and drink containers.

7 – Other

Any plastic that doesn’t fall into the categories 1-6 or is a combination of resins is considered ‘Other’. This includes polycarbonate, acrylic and perspex. This broad category of mixed plastics can be found in DVDs and their cases, reading glasses, baby bottles, car parts, and nylon.

Polycarbonates can contain the toxic chemical BPA. The toxin is linked to serious health risks and can leach out of the plastic especially when heating food and liquids. Whilst not all polycarbonates include BPA, it’s not often clearly labelled whether it does or doesn’t. Mixed plastics are often very difficult to recyclable if at all. They are more likely to be reused, but it’s better to steer clear of them in the first place.

Recycle Rating: Bad – depends on the item and the local recycling facility

How to Reduce: Avoid products that may contain BPA or use plastic-free alternatives.

What Next?

  • Download our free Plastics Recycling Cheat Sheet (PDF) that you can print out and use at a glance to remember what each plastic symbol corresponds to
  • Check what you can recycle in your area by visiting Recycle Now
  • Remember, recycling is a last resort. It will not get rid of the plastic waste problem. Instead, it’s better to reduce the amount of plastic that is produced in the first place. Here are 5 easy swaps to get you started