How to Read and Understand Plastic Recycling Symbols

Carol Alexander
·3 min read

What can and can't be recycled confuses many people, so before you drop another bottle into the recycling bin, take look on the bottom: Those little triangles with numbers in the middle are the way to know what an item is made of. And, armed with this knowledge, you're better able to make wise purchasing decisions and know how to dispose of plastic responsibly. To aid consumers in their recycling efforts, The Society of the Plastics Industry (now known as the Plastics Industry Association) devised a system of symbols that identifies the type of plastic used, and you'll find these symbols on the bottom of all plastic products.

Getty Images

Once you know what type of plastic you're discarding, check with your local waste management department to learn the proper recycling protocol for your area. "There's no federal program," says Mike Brown, co-founder with Eric Wilmanns of Brown Wilmanns Environmental, a consultancy group that helps corporations achieve their sustainability goals. "There's not even a state program. Everything is managed on a local level. Ask them for a current instruction sheet. It may be on their website, the lid of your curbside waste bin, or come in the form of a newsletter." This document should tell you which types of plastic they are currently able to send to recycling plants, which will likely be #1, PETE and #2, HDPE, the pro explains.

For certainty, consult this list of the numerical symbols with the types of plastics, where they're found, and what they make once recycled.

Related: What's the Difference Between Biodegradable, Compostable, and Recyclable?

#1 PET or PETE—Polyethylene Terephthalate

PET plastics are used for single-use beverage, salad dressing, and mouthwash bottles, as well as peanut butter jars and other food packaging because it's considered safe and easy to recycle. These plastics are included in most municipal recycling programs. The bottles are recycled to make carpet, furniture, and fleece fabric.

#2 HDPE—High-Density Polyethylene

HDPE has a low risk of leaching into foods and is used for things like milk jugs and yogurt containers. It's also used for detergent and motor oil bottles, as well as some children's toys. Recycled HDPE is made into pens, outdoor furniture, and floor tile.

#3 V or PVC—Polyvinyl Chloride

Seldom recycled, PVC is found in plumbing pipes, windows, house siding, and wire wrapping. Few municipalities collect it and burning PVC releases toxic fumes. Ask your local waste management how to dispose of it responsibly. Specialized facilities turn PVC into roadside gutters, speed bumps, and flooring.

#4 LDPE—Low-Density Polyethylene

This flexible plastic is finding its way into more recycling programs nationwide. It's used to make plastic wrap, tote bags, grocery bags, and squeezable bottles. When recycled, LDPE makes garbage cans, flooring, and bubble wrap.

Related: Here's Your Guide to Recycling by State

#5 PP—Polypropylene

Polypropylene is another safe, food-grade plastic. Because of its high melting point, it's often used for food containers like Tupperware. You'll also find it in medicine bottles and yogurt tubs. PP is recycled through most municipal programs into battery cables, brushes, pallets, and trays.

#6 PS—Polystyrene

Also known by its trade name Styrofoam, this plastic is known to leach into food and is hard to recycle. Most municipal programs won't accept it. You'll find it in beverage cups, disposable plates, egg cartons, and packing materials. It's recycled to make insulation, carry-out containers, and more egg cartons.

#7 Miscellaneous or Other

This category is for anything that doesn't fit any of the other descriptions. The group contains polycarbonate, which is used to make sunglasses and baby bottles. It's hard to recycle and contains BPA, a toxic chemical known to cause health problems. PLA (polylactic acid) also falls into this category. Consult with your local waste management about best practices when discarding these products.