How to Read These 7 Recycling Symbols on Plastics?

Recycling Symbols on Plastics called ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System are created by the Society of the Plastics Industry


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Recycling Symbols on Plastics

In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry implemented the Resin Identification Coding system is a set of recycling symbols on plastics that identify the plastic resin out of which the product is made.

The system has been adopted by a growing number of communities implementing recycling programs, as a tool to assist in sorting plastics.

What Recycling Symbols on Plastics Mean?

At the bottom of most plastic containers you can find a small number inside the three arrow triangle recycling symbol. This number is a reference to what type of plastic the container is made of.

The recycling code constitutes of the numbers 1 through 7. Sometimes below the numbers you also find the abbreviations for the plastic type (PETE, HDPE, etc.). The most widely accepted plastics for recycling are number 1 and 2, also most of plastic containers are type 1 and 2. 

Below is a list of the numbers, full names of the plastics they refer to, and some examples of common containers made of that product.

Here are the seven standard classifications for plastics, and the recycling and reuse information for each type.

Recycling plastics conserves almost 90% more energy than when they are made from new materials.

1. PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate)

PETE Polyethylene terephthalate

Photo: Bhutajata/Wikipedia

Polyethylene terephthalate is the most commonly found in plastic water/soda bottles, cups, cooking oil bottles, medicine containers and some food packaging. PETE is commonly recycled into fibers or polar fleece. It is not recommended for reuse which means it ends up in the recycling stream quickly.

In the US only 25% of PET bottles are recycled. After the plastic is crushed and shredded into small flakes which are then reprocessed to make new PET bottles, or spun into polyester fiber.

Recycled products: Fiber, tote bags, new PETE containers for both food and non-food products, fabric for clothing, athletic shoes, luggage, upholstery, furniture, carpet, fiberfill for sleeping bags and winter coats, industrial strapping, sheet, and film, and automotive parts, such as luggage racks, headliners, fuse boxes, bumpers, grilles and door panels

Note: Replacing disposable food packaging with reusable alternatives and switching to reusable beverage containers will help you to use less PET plastic.

2. HDPE (High density polyethylene)

HDPE High density polyethylene

Photo: Tomia/Wikipedia

High-density polyethylene or HDPE. Can be natural (e.g. milk jugs) or pigmented (e.g. laundry detergent containers). Tougher, cheaper. HDPE is widely recycled.

HDPE plastic is very hard-wearing and does not break down under exposure to sunlight or extremes of heating or freezing. 

In America only about 30-35% of HDPE plastic used gets recycled each year. In 1999 HDPE accounted for 47% of plastic bottle resin sales, making it the second most widely used resin in plastic bottles. HDPE and PETE together accounted for 95% of plastic bottle resin usage.

Recycled products: Drainage pipe, liquid laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, benches, doghouses, recycling containers, floor tile, picnic tables, fencing, lumber, and mailbox posts

Note: Consider reducing your HDPE use by replacing your disposable produce bags with reusable alternatives.

3. PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)

PVC Polyvinyl chloride

Photo: Tomia/Wikipedia

Found in shampoo bottles, medical plastics, some toys (including dog) and window trim, this plastic is typically not used for household items that can be consumed as it can contain phthalates. PVC is usually recycled into paneling, flooring, cables and decks.

Vinyl, or polyvinylchloride, has stable electrical and physical properties. It has excellent chemical resistance and good weatherability. 

Recycled products: Binders, decking, paneling, mudflaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, and mats

Note: Consider reducing items made with PVC plastic, consider replacing plastic food wrap with reusable beeswax wraps; plastic toys with reclaimed wool stuffed animals and your PVC garden hose with a drinking water safe garden hose.

4. LDPE (Low density polyethylene)

 LDPE Low density polyethylene

Photo: Tomia/Wikipedia

Bottles you can squeeze like shampoo or condiment bottles are made from LDPE. A lot of recycling centers do not accept LDPE. LDPE can be recycled into more bags or trash liners and floor tiles.

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE or LLDPE) Chemically identical to HDPE except with shorter chain lengths. Commonly used for plastic baggies used as interior packaging. Also used in some rigid applications. The non-rigid products are not ordinarily recyclable except in special collection programs. 

Recycled products: Film and sheet, loor tile, garbage can liners, shipping envelopes, furniture, compost bins, paneling, trash cans, lumber, landscaping ties.

Note: Reduce the LDPE that you consume by replacing your plastic grocery bags with fabric alternatives or a cloth bag to the supermarket the next time you buy a grocery. You can also replace plastic sandwich bags with platinum silicone alternatives.

5. PP (Polypropylene)

PP Polypropylene

Photo: Tomia/Wikipedia

PP is durable and versatile. This is usually found in medical bottles, yogurt tubs, cereal box liners, bottle caps, some ropes and condiment bottles. PP can be recycled into brushes, battery cases and bike racks.

Recycled products: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, and trays

Note: To cut down on how much PP you consume, opt for reusable straws instead of plastic ones, reusable water bottles, and cloth diapers.

6. PS (Polystyrene)

PS Polystyrene

Photo: Tomia/Wikipedia

Commonly referred to as ‘styrofoam’ this is one kind of plastic. Styrofoam makes up Dunkin’ cups (for hot liquids), meat trays, packing peanuts and egg cartons.

Recycled products: Thermal insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers

Note: To eliminate polystyrene from your trash, try a reusable coffee cup, compostable or reusable picnic cutlery, and stainless steel takeaway containers.

7. Other

Plastic recycling symbol 07

Photo: Tomia/Wikipedia

This is a mixed bag of plastics. It includes things like baby bottles and 5-gallon water jugs.

Recycled products: Plastic lumber, custom-made products

Which.co.uk has put together a simple table for the seven main types of plastic to easier to remember or save it to your phone that can help you know what can and can not be recyclable.

Biodegradable plastics, like cups made of corn, are NOT recyclable. Though they have the recycling #7, this only means “other plastics”, including non-petroleum-based.

Simple changes to our every day habits can help us save millions of tons of plastic waste and reduce the negative impact on the environment.

Note: To avoid chemicals leaking into your foods from food packaging, try going homemade and storing your leftovers (or your lunches) in platinum silicone or stainless steel.

If you still have doubts about plastic pollution the documentary movie A Plastic Ocean can change that. Watch the A Plastic Ocean trailer below from Craig Leeson and Tanya Streeter and a team of international scientists. This documentary took over 4 years to be produced and it is filmed across more than 20 locations.


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