Plastic Recycling Symbol – Understanding the Complex and Confusing Symbols
Have you ever felt confused by the plastic recycling symbol on a piece of packaging? You’re not alone – with so many variations of arrow symbols, it’s almost as if it’s meant to be confusing.
Trying to figure out what can and cannot be recycled can be a big headache. With so many recycling symbols, it’s no wonder that 91% of all plastic ever made has not been recycled.
To make matters worse, a product with the Resin Identification Code (RIC) – the universal plastic recycling symbol with three chasing arrows forming a triangle – doesn’t always guarantee it is recyclable.
The Green Dot
Take this symbol, for example. You might think a product marked with a symbol containing green arrows is recyclable. In reality, it just means that the manufacturer made a financial contribution to recover recycling items in Europe.
The second symbol means that the product is capable of being recycled or made from a percentage of recycled plastic but it does not guarantee that the product can be recycled.
The ugly truth is this: the plastic industry spent millions in advertising and lobbied governments to adopt the RIC symbols. By their very design, the arrows are a greenwashing tactic to imply that the product could be recycled.
The reality is that plastics release staggering quantities of pollution into the air, water, and soil. Huge corporations have created an industry that puts the responsibility of recycling on the consumer, rather than taking charge to find more earth-friendly packaging.
Just four companies create six million metric tons of plastic yearly. 20 companies are responsible for creating 55% of the world’s single-use plastics. These companies are profited from damaging our planet, yet it’s the consumer’s responsibility to make sure plastic packaging is recycled.
With that said, recycling what plastic we can’t avoid is still important. By understanding each plastic recycling symbol, we can determine what is accepted in our local recycling programs. It’s always best to consult the information provided by your local government. Keep in mind that the rules per each recycling plant vary, and these rules can also change over time.
Understanding Each Plastic Recycling Symbol
Turn a plastic product over, and there should be the stamp of a triangle with a number 1 to 7 inside. Each symbol offers a great deal of information to help us understand the chemicals used inside the plastic and whether it can be recycled or not.
Plastic Recycling Symbol Number 1: PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
Used for: beer bottles, cooking oil, fizzy drinks, food trays, fruit containers, sauce bottles, mouthwash bottles, spread containers, salad dressing containers and water bottles.
Recycling info: recyclable. Empty and rinse to clean off any food. Remove the cap unless the product states otherwise—no need to remove bottle labels.
Safety: PET has a low risk of chemical leaching into the product it contains.
Plastic Recycling Symbol Number 2: HDPE (high density polyethylene)
Used for: bleach, cereal box liners, detergent bottles, household cleaner containers, juice bottles, margarine and butter tubs, milk jugs, motor oil bottles, shampoo bottles, toiletries bottles and yoghurt tubs.
Recycling info: recyclable except for flimsy plastics, such as bags and cling film. Sometimes plastic bags, bread bags, films and frozen food bags can be recycled at a supermarket plastic bag recycling point. Check with the local authority.
Safety: HDPE is considered to have a low risk of chemical leaching into the product it contains.
Plastic Recycling Symbol Number 3: PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and V (vinyl)
Used for: clear food packaging, cooking oil bottles, detergent bottles, drain pipes, food wrap, medical equipment, medicine blister packs, piping, shampoo bottles and wire jacketing.
Recycling info: rarely recyclable. Check with the local authority.
Safety: dangerous to burn.
Plastic Recycling Symbol Number 4: LDPE (low density polyethylene)
Used for: bread bags, carpet, clothing, frozen food, furniture, shopping bags, some food wraps and squeezable bottles.
Recycling info: not often recycled. Check with the local authority. Sometimes plastic bags, bread bags, films and frozen food bags can be recycled at a supermarket plastic bag recycling point.
Plastic Recycling Symbols Number 5: PP (Polypropylene)
Used for: ketchup bottles, medicine bottles, straws, syrup bottles and yoghurt containers.
Recycling info: sometimes recyclable. Empty and rinse to clean off any food. Remove cap unless the packaging states to keep it on—no need to remove bottle labels.
Plastic Recycling Symbol Number 6: PS (Polystyrene)
Used for: compact disc cases, disposable plates, egg cartons, meat trays, single-use cups and takeaway containers.
Recycling info: Polystyrene can’t be recycled and should be avoided.
Safety: can leach into foods and is a possible human carcinogen. Styrene oxide is classified as a probable carcinogen.
Plastic Recycling Symbol Number 7: Other, Miscellaneous
Used for: 3- and 5-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials, computer cases, iPod cases, nylon, and sunglasses.
Recycling info: typically not recyclable. Check with the local authority.
Safety: polycarbonate, which contains the toxic hormone-disrupting bisphenol-A (BPA) which leaches into food and drink
What plastic recycling symbol should we avoid?
The best thing to do is to avoid using all single-use plastic, if possible. Otherwise, try to avoid any that you know cannot be recycled by the local recycling centre.
The reality is that 91% of plastic has never even been recycled. It is still on the earth with us. A further 32% of plastic packaging ends up in our oceans every year. When and wherever possible, it’s always better to reduce or refuse plastic, especially plastics with potentially toxic chemicals.
Want to help advocate for change? Email your local representatives with my template and put pressure on them to address the plastic pollution issue.
If you haven’t already, make sure to join the Aim Plastic Free challenge for daily tips and community support!
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