Explaining the Seven Plastic Recycling Symbols

Last updated on November 9th, 2023 at 09:23 am

Digging into plastic recycling isn’t just about slashing waste; it’s a smart move for a greener planet.

Back in 1988, the Plastics Industry Trade Association (SPI) rolled out the recycling code system, a game-changer for ID’ing plastic types and their recycling potential.

Today’s products? They’ve got a range of recycling symbols, and decoding them is key.

In this blog, we’re breaking down the seven main plastic recycling symbols—your guide to a waste-savvy, eco-friendly business. So, let’s unravel the secrets together.

Why is having an environmentally friendly restaurant important?

Year over year the world’s reliance on plastics has increased.

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 materials 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 difficult. Single-use products save time and labor, and in some cases are necessary. However, by learning and understanding recycling symbols, you can do your part to cut down on waste.

What does the “chasing arrows” symbol mean?

The green “chasing arrows” symbol is seen on many products, but there’s a common misunderstanding. People often think it means the product is made from recycled materials.

However, these arrows are not regulated. Specifically, they highlight the number inside and the abbreviation below.

The number inside, also known as the ‘resin code,’ indicates the type of plastic used in the product, and chemicals used during processing.

Understanding what each number means helps reduce waste and boosts recycling efforts.

You’ll usually find an abbreviation under each recycling symbol, describing the material group the product belongs to.

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. It’s cheap, lightweight, and easily recycled. Its symbol features 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)

Manufacturers commonly use this type of plastic in the United States due to its versatility and ability to serve various purposes. HDPE is most frequently used for product packaging. Its symbol, a triangle with the number 2 inside and the letters HDPE underneath, represents its classification.

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

How to Recycle: Most curbside recycling programs will collect items with this symbol. Grocery bags may or may not be accepted. However, many stores will collect and recycle them for you.

3. PVC or V (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC is easily molded, stamped, or bonded to create things like piping and siding. It’s rigid, durable, and versatile. PVC requires chlorine to produce it, which 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: 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 dangerous toxins.

4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE, prized for its flexibility and lightweight characteristics, excels in packaging applications. However, recycling this material can pose challenges at standard facilities. Keep an eye out for its distinctive symbol—a triangle with the number 4 inside and ‘LDPE’ underneath.

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

How to Recycle: Usually not accepted for curbside recycling. In brief, you can throw most items in the trash or take them to a recycling center. Retail and grocery stores usually accept and recycle shopping bags, similar to HDPE.

5. PP (Polypropylene)

Polypropylene is stiff, tough, and resistant to moisture, grease, and chemicals. Since it has a high melting point, it’s great 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. Above all, be sure to rinse out any leftover contents.

6. PS (Polystyrene)

More commonly known as Styrofoam, PS is lightweight and often used in disposable items for single use. Furthermore, it’s easy and inexpensive to produce, making it a popular choice for manufacturers. Keep an eye out for its symbol—a triangle containing the number 6 with ‘PS’ underneath—for easy identification.

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

Beyond the first six categories, this group includes plastics like fiberglass, acrylic, polycarbonate, and bioplastics. Especially keep an eye out for this symbol—a triangle with the number 7 and ‘OTHER’ underneath—signifying a diverse category in the plastic world.

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

How to Recycle: Since these items are not normally accepted at curbside recycling, you’ll need to check with local recycling centers. These locations may accept this type of recycling for drop-off.

Can you recycle plastics without a symbol?

If you don’t see a recycling symbol on plastic, it could mean a few things. In detail, the plastic might not be recyclable, or could be made of something that isn’t often recycled. At the same time, it could be too dirty to recycle.

If you find something without a recycling symbol, it’s probably not recyclable. In that case, just toss it in the trash. If you’re really into recycling, check local guidelines for more details.

Plastic Recycling Symbols: Conclusion

Different cities have differing recycling programs. Your area may or may not recycle some of the plastics listed above. Check with your local regulations just in case.

Since not all plastics are recyclable, understanding the seven most common symbols is key.

Some recycling programs may only accept certain types of plastic. When recycling plastic, make sure that the plastic is clean and free of contaminants. Dirty plastics can contaminate the entire recycling stream.

You can help reduce waste and protect the environment by paying attention to the recycling symbols for plastics and following the guidelines of your local recycling program.

Operating more eco-friendly can help improve your restaurant’s reputation.

Check out this blog to explore more ways to decrease restaurant waste:

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