You’d think that everybody would get the hang of efficient waste recycling practices by now, but reports indicate that recycling plastic continues to be one of the more confusing forms of waste disposal for many Americans. In a 2019 survey, only 31 percent of Americans responded that they ‘always recycle a recyclable item’, and that 62 percent of those surveyed admitted that a lack of recycling knowledge causes them to worry that they’re recycling incorrectly. Other studies have shown that approximately 1-in-4 items placed in a recycling bin are not officially recyclable, leading to landfills receiving tens of millions of tons of plastic waste that could’ve been recycled.

Spreading awareness and education on the dos and don’ts of recycling is crucial to achieving our goals of increasing environmental sustainability in our country. Aside from knowing what items can be recycled or not, one of the more confusing components of recycling is understanding all the recycling symbols that are labeled on a wide variety of plastic packaging and bottles. Being able to decipher what these symbols mean can not only lead to more efficient recycling, but can greatly benefit our environment by reducing our carbon footprint.

If you’ve ever been curious as to what exactly these signs mean, let’s take a look at identifying all the different kinds of plastic recycling symbols.

History and Meaning of Recycling Symbols

The first recycling symbol was created in 1970 by a University of Southern California student named Gary Anderson. His logo featured three rotating green arrows that point to one another in a clockwise direction, an ode to the Mobius loop, discovered by German astronomer and mathematician August Ferdinand Mobius in 1858, and imitates the process of reusing materials through recycling. Anderson submitted his design to a contest taking place at the International Design Conference and sponsored by Container Corporation of America.

Anderson’s design won the contest, and went on to be incorporated into what’s known today as the ASTM International Resin Identification Coding System (RIM), which consists of seven symbols branded onto plastic products that identify what kind of plastic (resin) the product is created from. RIM has been used for plastic products since 1988, yet studies today continue to show that consumers are still generally confused or unaware of what the symbols specifically refer to.

Symbol 1: PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

The first symbol has arguably the easiest acronym to remember, perhaps because it’s essentially the most commonly used and found form of plastic. PETE or PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate, and is used for everything from:

●        Bottled water

●        Juice boxes

●        Soft drink two-liters

●        Ketchup and condiment bottles

●        Salad dressing containers and more

An important thing to remember with Symbol 1 products is to wash out any remaining food or substance lingering within the plastic bottle before recycling. Polyethylene terephthalate is commonly recycled into:

●        Carpet

●        Fiber

●        Fleece

●        Tote bags

Symbol 2: HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

High-density polyethylene is often cited as the most used form of plastic, and its symbol can be spotted in many common household items, such as:

●        Bleach and detergent containers

●        Shampoo bottles

●        Milk jugs

●        Soap and body wash

HDPE can be disposed into curbside recycling bins, and is one of the most productive plastics to recycle, as studies show it can be recycled by at least 10 times after its original use. HDPE is commonly recycled into:

●        Pipes

●        Pens

●        Benches

●        Fences

●        Tables

Symbol 3: PVC or V (Polyvinyl Chloride or Vinyl) 

Polyvinyl chloride, or often merely known as vinyl, is one of the more enduring forms of plastic, generally used for items that require extensive longevity. PVC tends to be utilized for construction or packaging purposes, and its symbol can be found on:

●        Gutters

●        Window frames

●        Piping

●        Flooring

●        Siding

Because polyvinyl chloride contains hazardous chemicals, it rarely can be effectively recycled, and shouldn’t be thrown into your curbside waste recycling bin. However, if you do come across its symbol, it’s encouraged to reach out to a professional waste solutions company, or reuse these materials on your own as much as possible, as they can be utilized for items such as:

●        Speed bumps

●        Foil

●        Cable

●        Mats

Symbol 4: LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene)

Another extremely flexible and applicable plastic material, low density polyethylene has evolved to become more accepted in residential and commercial recycling programs, after years of being discouraged. You can find its symbol on items ranging from:

●        Squeezable bottles

●        Furniture

●        Shopping bags

●        Bread wrapping

●        Frozen food packaging

LDPE can be difficult to recycle, so it’s important to check with your recycling provider to see if they accept it. It can be a resourceful plastic to reuse at home, as it’s often used for household items such as:

●        Trash container liners

●        Floor tile

●        Shipping envelopes

●        Compost bins

Symbol 5: PP (Polypropylene)

Polypropylene has resilient and durable qualities, which means it’s typically used for hot liquid containers or various types of medicine or chemicals. You can usually find its symbol on any of the following items:

●        Straws

●        Cough syrup bottles

●        Yogurt or soup containers

●        Rope

As with polyethylene terephthalate products (symbol 1), polypropylene containers should be properly rinsed out before recycling. PP is more often than not accepted by curbside recycling services, and tends to be recycled into:

●        Battery cables

●        Brooms

●        Trays

●        Bicycle racks

Symbol 6: PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene is universally known as Styrofoam, and is generally one of the more confusing plastic products when it comes to knowing whether they’re recyclable or not. It’s primarily used for packaging purposes, such as:

●        Egg cartons

●        Packing peanuts

●        Disposable cups and plates

●        To-go food containers

Because polystyrene is so easy and inexpensive to use, it’s widely used around the world. However, PS has also grown to become one of the biggest problems when it comes to waste management, as researchers project that it accounts for around 30 percent of total landfill waste, and can take at least 500 years to decompose. Polystyrene isn’t accepted by most curbside recycling services, which means you should either contact your local waste management provider to determine the best method of disposing it, or you can drop it off at the post office or shipping stores for it to be reused as packing peanuts.

Symbol 7: ‘Other’ (Miscellaneous)

Any plastic that doesn’t fall into any of the previously mentioned categories receives a Symbol 7 labeling for ‘other’. These can typically be found in plastic materials such as:

●        Sunglasses

●        DVD and computer cases

●        Nylon fabrics

●        Plexiglass

Most curbside recycling programs don’t accept plastic materials that fall under Symbol 7, so be sure to reach out to your residential or commercial waste management provider to determine the best approach to disposing of these products.

Make the Most Out of Your Recycling With LJP Waste Solutions

Whenever you’re unsure of how to appropriately recycle plastic products, LJP Waste Solutions is here to offer a helping hand. Contact us today to find out the right recycling solutions for you, or give us a call at 507.625.1968 to answer any recycling questions you may have.