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What do the Recycling Symbols on Plastic Containers Mean?

Jan 25, 2019 11:23:00 AM

While it may seem like a secret code, the symbols present on plastic recyclable items convey what items are made of. Plastic containers like milk jugs and even food wrap contain a code for the resin type. The Society of the Plastics Industry created the resin identification coding system in 1988 as a way to improve identification of resin types in the waste stream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. Although many consumers may fail to notice them, businesses and organizations that handle a large volume of disposable containers could greatly benefit from learning about what those recycling symbols mean to ensure they recycle them instead of throwing them in landfills.

 A common misperception regarding the plastic resin codes is that they mean a product made of plastic is recyclable.  The plastics industry has a vested interest in perpetuating this myth. In fact. The codes embossed on plastic, typically numbered 1 through 7 simply indicate the type of plastic used in the product. 

With enough money and energy, anything is recyclable.  But the reality is that over 90% of plastic is not recycled in large part because there’s no viable aftermarket for the recycled material.

Here are seven common recycling symbols and their meanings:

1 PETEThis type of plastic is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET). Some of the most common plastic items are made from PETE or PET, making it easy to recycle as many recycling facilities accept this resin type.

Examples include:

  • Water and juice bottles
  • Soda bottles
  • Salad dressing bottles
  • Peanut butter containers
2 HDPEAs another major form of plastic that is recyclable, high density polyethylene (HDPE) is often included for recycling services offered by municipalities. HDPE containers are durable and have one of the highest recycling rates. 

Examples include:

  • Milk jugs
  • Juice bottles
  • Cleaning supply bottles
  • Yogurt containers
Recycling Plastic Symbol 3

This third kind of plastic resin, called vinyl (V) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Plastic #3 is hard to recycle and is known to contain phthalates that may cause health problems if humans are exposed. 

Examples include:

  • Clear food packaging
  • Shampoo bottles
  • Detergent bottles
plastic recycling symbol 4 LDPE

Although not many recycling facilities have services to recycle low density polyethylene (LDPE) because products with this resin are difficult to recycle, an increasing number of plants are starting to accept it. 

Examples include:

  • Squeezable bottles
  • Food wrap
  • Plastic bags
  • Drycleaning bags
plastic recycling symbol 5 PP

PP products are also typically recyclable in most major cities and considered to be one of the most widely used plastics in the world. 

Examples include:

  • Food containers
  • Trays
  • Bottle caps
plastic recycling symbol 6 PSAlthough polystyrene (PS) or Plastic #6 is also a very common plastic, it's not accepted by most recycling facilities because its expensive to recycle.  

Examples include:

  • Packaging peanuts
  • Disposable coffee cup lids
  • Black food trays
  • Grocery store meat trays 
plastic recycling symbol 7 other

The last resin category encompasses all other or miscellaneous plastics, including polylactic acid (PLA), which is a biodegradable and compostable material.  There are no standardization on whether these plastics are recyclable. They typically aren't are not for reuse unless the are compostable.

Examples include:

  • Plastic made from corn
  • Polycarbonate (PC) 
  • BPA

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