Recycling Symbols for Plastic and What Do They Mean

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Last Updated on June 25, 2022

With over 6 billion metric tons of plastic waste being produced, only around 9% of them are recycled, leaving us with 91% of the remaining plastics unrecycled. This staggering statistic alone is more than enough to convince us of the importance of recycling – plastics in particular.

By recycling, we can help conserve the environment and prevent the extinction of a variety of species, including us. Also, it allows us to avoid creating massive landfills, reduce air and water pollution, and reuse valuable materials instead of just wasting them.

However, a lot of individuals are not keen on recycling, thereby leading to a number of problems. If people don’t recycle, it can lead to the development of more greenhouse gases, tons of garbage piling up, waters being contaminated, and extreme air pollution.

Before you start recycling your waste, let’s focus on deciphering what do recycling symbols mean, particularly those recycling symbols for plastic.

Definition of Recyclable and Recycled

The main difference between recyclable and recycled is that the first is a term used to refer to items that can be reused. This would include metal, paper, and plastic. On the other hand, recycled is a term used to refer to items that were made from materials previously from another object.

There are two categories for recycling symbols which are as follows:

  • Recyclables
  • Recycles


Recycling Symbols for Plastic: What the Numbers Mean

Most people don’t have an idea of what the specific numbers in a plastic product mean. Although they do know that it means “recycle”, what they don’t know is that it doesn’t always necessarily mean it can be recycled.

There are actually 7 different number symbols. According to the Plastics Industry Association, formerly The Society of the Plastics Industry, they introduced these symbols as part of the Resin Identification Coding System which originally aimed to create a national system to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics.

It has been later on adopted by various recycling programs as a means of sorting certain types of plastics in accordance with their resin type. Let’s break them down:

Code 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate

Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) is commonly used in most plastic items such as water bottles, cups, and food containers. This type of plastic is lightweight, affordable, and very easy to recycle, making it the perfect candidate to single-use bottles. However, this also means that it’s not recommended to reuse it.

Fortunately, most curbside recycling programs can recycle PETE into polar fleece, tote, and plastic fibers.

Recycling symbols for plastic and what do they mean

Code 2: High-Density Polyethylene

The “2” symbol inside a triangle refers to high-density polyethylene (HDPE) which is considered one of the three types of plastics which is considered safe. You’ll mostly find this symbol in detergent and household cleaner bottles.

HDPE is commonly recycled into detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, drainage pipes, and more.

Recycling Symbols for Plastic and What Do They Mean



Code 3: Polyvinyl Chloride

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has the “3” symbol and is commonly found in some liquid containers, shampoo bottles, medical plastics, and more. However, it’s not commonly used in household items as it may contain phthalates. Also, while it’s considerably tough in terms of strength, it isn’t considered safe for heating or cooking.

PVC is rarely recycled, but if it is, it’s mainly used to create vinyl floors and tires.

Recycling symbols for plastic and what do they mean

Code 4: Low-Density Polyethylene

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) has the “4” symbol and is used for making squeezable bottles like condiments and shampoo bottles. It’s rarely accepted in curbside recycling programs, although more and more are starting to recycle it. However, since most recycling programs don’t accept it due to environmental concerns, I’d suggest reusing plastic products made of LDPE instead of throwing them away.

When recycled, it can be turned into lumber, compost bins, floor tiles, and more.

Recycling symbols for plastic and what do they mean

Code 5: Polypropylene

Polypropylene (PP) is actually one of the safer types of plastic. It’s commonly found in cereal box liners, bottle caps, syrup bottles, medicine bottles, and more with the “5” symbol. This type of plastic is often recycled into bicycle racks, ice scrapers, battery cables, trays, and more.

Among the other types of plastics, this one is considered microwave-safe due to its high heat resistance which prevents it from warping. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s completely safe to consume foods which were placed in it. It would be a lot better if you avoid microwaving food in a PP plastic and go for microwaveable glass instead.

Recycling symbols for plastic and what do they mean

Code 6: Polystyrene

Widely known as “styrofoam”, polystyrene is a low-density plastic which can be quite tough to recycle. Due to this, it’s been subject to local bans and even considered as harmful to the environment. This type of plastic, which has the “6” symbol, is mostly found in disposable plates and caps as well as meat trays.

Most recycling programs don’t recycle polystyrene, but when recycled, this plastic can be recycled into egg cartons, insulation, rulers, and more.

Recycling symbols for plastic and what do they mean

Code 7: Miscellaneous

The “7” symbol which you can find in other plastic bags refers to any plastic which is not under any of the above categories. This could include stuff like water jugs, baby bottles, DVDs, computer cases, bulletproof materials, and more.

Although this type of plastic isn’t widely accepted by curbside recycling programs, it can be recycled into a variety of custom-made products. The problem is that it contains the toxic bisphenol A (BPA) chemical which is considered harmful to human health.

Recycling symbols for plastic and what do they mean

Which Plastic is Safer to Have Contact With?

While plastics have certain chemicals that are deemed toxic, the seven types of plastics have their own “safe” levels. In this section, we’re going to rank them based on their level of toxicity and determine which types you have to avoid.

Relatively Safe

These plastics are considered by most experts to be “relatively safe” due to a number of factors including secondary use value, excellent heat resistance, and low risks of leaching. They include the following:

  •       Code 2: High-Density Polyethylene
  •       Code 4: Low-Density Polyethylene
  •       Code 5: Polypropylene

To Avoid

Plastics that belong under this category are considered highly toxic due to the chemicals they contain, particularly the highly toxic BPA, as well as exhibiting high risks of leaching. These include the following:

  •       Code 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate
  •       Code 3: Polyvinyl Chloride
  •       Code 6: Polystyrene
  •       Code 7: Miscellaneous


Completely avoiding the use of plastics is indeed hard. However, it’s actually possible by slowly limiting your use of plastics in your daily routine. Instead of going for one-time use plastics, it’s a lot preferable to use ones which are reusable. For example, instead of buying mineral water in a bottle, invest in a metal tumbler instead.

Alternatively, instead of using plastic straws which are one-time use only, it’d be a lot better if you use organic bamboo straws or metal ones. This way, you’ll be able to help conserve the environment while avoiding the harmful and toxic effects of plastic.

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