Explaining the Seven Plastic Recycling Symbols

Last updated on May 10th, 2023 at 02:20 pm

Recycling plastic is an important way to reduce waste and preserve natural resources. To make it easier for consumers to recycle plastic, a standardized set of symbols was created to identify the type of plastic and its recycling characteristics. A plastic recycling code system was introduced by the Plastics Industry Trade Association (SPI) in 1988.

There are many different recycling symbols used in today’s products. Without properly knowing what each one means, users can be easily confused. In this blog we will touch on the 7 main plastic recycling symbols and what they mean. Understanding the significance of these symbols can make it easier for you to minimize waste and operate more eco-friendly.

Why is having an environmentally friendly restaurant important?

For decades, the world’s reliance on plastics has exponentially increased year over year. According to the UN’s Environment Programme, “Of the seven billion tons of plastic waste generated globally so far, less than 10 per cent has been recycled.”

Some plastics are much harder to recycle than others. Materials like polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene, are commonly used items that are much harder to recycle than others. Eventually, it is in the best interest of the planet that we move away from such plastics.

Unfortunately, ridding restaurants and stores of plastics can be extremely hard. However, by learning and understanding recycling symbols, you can do your part to cut down on waste.

What does the “chasing arrows” symbol mean?

It’s common for people to see the green “chasing arrows” symbol on most of their consumer goods. A common mistake is that this sign means the product is created from recycled materials. The arrows themselves are an unregulated sign. They are used to draw attention to the number inside, and the abbreviation underneath.

The number or “resin code” seen inside the chasing arrows sign identifies the type of plastic used in the product’s packaging or product itself. Moreover, it can disclose the kind of chemicals involved during processing. By knowing what each number stands for, you can decrease waste and increase recycling.

Usually there is an abbreviated word underneath as well. This word describes the material group the product fits in. Below we discuss the numbers and abbreviations to look for when properly recycling. 

What are the 7 plastic recycling symbols?

1. PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) – This is the most used plastic for consumer products. This is the most used plastic because it is cheap, lightweight, and easily recycled. It has a symbol featuring a triangle with the number 1 inside and letters PETE underneath.

Examples: Bottled soft drinks and water, salad dressing and cooking oil bottles, ketchup bottles, peanut butter containers.

How to Recycle: Curbside recycling. Empty and rinse out any remaining contents.

2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) – This type of plastic is one of the most commonly used in the United States. This plastic is versatile and can be used in multiple ways. Most commonly, HDPE is used in product packaging. The HDPE symbol features a triangle with the number 2 inside and letters HDPE underneath.

Examples: Milk jugs, detergent and other cleaner bottles, grocery bags, yogurt tubs, cereal box liners.

How to Recycle: Most curbside recycling programs will collect all these items. Grocery bags may or may not be accepted, however many stores will collect and recycle them.

3. PVC or V (Polyvinyl Chloride) – Thanks to its lightweight yet rigid properties, PVC can be easily molded, stamped, or bonded to create things like piping and siding. With chlorine involved, PVC releases dangerous toxins during manufacturing. Its symbol features a triangle with the number 3 inside and letters PVC underneath.

Examples: Plumping and sewage pipes, vinyl flooring, window framing, food wrap.

How to Recycle: Unfortunately, PVC cannot be recycled curbside. Check with your local waste management for specifications. There may be special collection centers in your area. Remember to NEVER burn PVC, as it can release toxins.

4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) – LDPE is flexible and low weight, making it suitable for packaging purposes but particularly difficult to recycle at most facilities. Its symbol features a triangle with the number 4 inside and letters LDPE underneath.

Examples: Shopping bags, furniture, six-pack rings, shrink wrap, squeeze bottles, some clothing.

How to Recycle: Usually not accepted for curbside recycling. Most items can be thrown in the trash or taken to a recycling center. Similar to HDPE, shopping bags are usually accepted and recycled by retail and grocery stores.

5. PP (Polypropylene)
– PP is stiff, tough, and resistant to moisture, grease, and chemicals. Since it has a high melting point, it’s often used for hot liquid containers. Polypropylene is gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers. Its symbol features a triangle with the number 5 inside and letters PP underneath.
Examples: Straws, syrup bottles, medicine bottles, yogurt containers, plastic bottle caps, some furniture.

How to Recycle: Curbside recycling. Be sure to rinse out any leftover contents.

6. PS (Polystyrene) – Polystyrene is often referred to as just Styrofoam. PS is lightweight and common for disposable items designed for a single use. It is easy and inexpensive to produce, making it popular for manufacturers.  Its symbol features a triangle with the number 6 inside and letters PS underneath.

Examples: Styrofoam plates and cups, egg cartons, carry-out containers, peanut packaging.

How to Recycle: Not accepted by most curbside recycling programs. Check with local recycling sites or businesses to find someone that collects it. If there are no recycling programs in your area for PS, rinse out products and throw them in the trash.

7. O or Other – This category includes plastic resins that do not fit into the other six categories. Items in this category feature fiberglass, acrylic, polycarbonate, and bioplastics. Its symbol features a triangle with the number 7 inside and letters “OTHER” underneath.

Examples:  Some food storage containers, shelving, signs and displays, nylon, high volume water bottles.

How to Recycle: These items are not normally accepted at curbside recycling. Check with local recycling centers, as they may be accepted for drop-off.

Can you recycle plastics without a symbol?

The absence of a recycle sign on plastic can mean a few distinct things. It can imply that the plastic cannot be recycled or that it is constructed of a substance that is not frequently recycled. In can also mean the plastic could be too contaminated to be recycled.

If you come across an item without a recycling symbol, it is best to assume the item cannot be recycled. In this case, just throw items in the trash. If you are still determined to recycle items, check with local recycling guidelines.


Be aware different cities have differing recycling programs. Thus, your area may or may not recycle some of the plastics listed above. Check with your local regulations just in case.

It is important to note that not all plastics are recyclable. Some recycling programs may only accept certain types of plastic. When recycling plastic, it is also important to ensure that the plastic is clean and free of contaminants, as dirty plastics can contaminate the entire recycling stream.

By paying attention to the recycling symbols for plastics and following the guidelines of your local recycling program, you can help reduce waste and protect the environment. Operating more eco-friendly can help improve your restaurant’s reputation.

Check out this blog to explore more ways to decrease restaurant waste, Save Your Restaurant Money by Going Green.

You may also like...