Flip any plastic product or package over and you’re sure to find a small symbol imprinted into the plastic: three chasing arrows often encircling a number. It’s an important symbol and yet most of us have never thought much about it. If we have, we’ve most likely had a thought somewhere along the lines of — “Oh good, the recycling symbol” — and then tossed the item into our recycling bins. But the truth is, the plastic recycling symbol on the bottom of our products and packaging tells us so much more than whether an item can be recycled or not.
And FYI: Just because a product has the chasing arrows symbol, doesn't mean it's recyclable. (More on this later.)
So, what does the plastic recycling symbol actually mean?
Well. Plastic comes in many different varieties. Different combinations of resins and polymers create plastics with different properties and different types of plastic present their own independent opportunities and threats. Officially, the symbol embedded on most plastics is called a “resin identification code” and it’s numbers, 1 to 7, help us to identify the type of plastic it is made from. It does not indicate the recyclability of a product.
We’ll say it again: A plastic recycling symbol ≠ A product is recyclable
In Life Without Plastic, authors Plamondon and Sinha, explain why:
“Thanks to the intelligent strategy that the plastic industry came up with in the early 1980’s of imprinting a recycling code on the most commonly consumed plastic items, a large majority of consumers think that the bulk of the plastics they consume are recyclable and actually do get recycled through their local curbside program. In reality, only a small percentage of the contents is recycled.”
So, how do you know what plastic type is recyclable?
The answer to this question is a little trickier and here’s the reason why: whether a type of plastic can be recycled is not indicative of whether that type of plastic actually is recycled. In short, what plastics can and can’t be recycled in your local curbside recycling program is determined solely by your local municipality. It is important to check with your local municipality about which materials are recyclable and which are not, and check-in frequently as rules are subject to change over time.
So, what else does the plastic recycling symbol tell us?
Short answer: A LOT. And to show just how much information is held in those tiny numbers chased by arrows, we’ve put together this comprehensive guide to decoding plastics #1 through #7.
What follows is a little tour of the most common types of plastic one might come across in everyday life. With each plastic we give a little description of what each plastic recycling symbol means, what products you’re likely to find it in, if it’s safe, recyclable and most importantly, how to avoid it.
Plastic Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE
What is PET: PET (also abbreviated PETE) is short for polyethylene terephthalate, the chemical name for polyester. It is a clear, strong, and lightweight plastic that is widely used for packaging foods and beverages, especially convenience-sized soft drinks, juices and water.
Where you’ll find it: Virtually all single-serving and 2-liter bottles of carbonated soft drinks and water sold in the U.S. are made from PET. It is also popular for packaging salad dressings, peanut butter, cooking oils, mouthwash, shampoo, liquid hand soap, window cleaner, even tennis balls. Special grades of PET are used for carry-home food containers and prepared food trays that can be warmed in the oven or microwave.
Health + Safety Concerns: PET has been approved as safe and does not contain bisphenol-A (BPA) or phthalates (plasticizers). However, in the presence of heat it can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid, into food and beverages, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea and stomach ulcers. The longer the bottle is on the shelf or exposed to heat or sunshine, the more antimony is likely to have leached into the product.
Recyclability: PET is one of the most widely accepted plastics in curbside recycling programs (although we recommend checking with your local municipality before blindly tossing into the recycling bin). Products made from recycled PET include: new PET bottles and jars, carpet, clothing, industrial strapping, rope, automotive parts, fiberfill for winter jackets and sleeping bags, construction materials, and protective packaging.
How to avoid it: Invest in a reusable water bottle, shop for food products packaged in glass or aluminum, shop for refillable personal care products like mouthwash, shampoo, conditioner, hand soap and all-purpose cleaner, make a plan to cook at home one more night a week and when you do go out, remember to bring your own containers for leftovers.
Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE
What is HDPE: High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is a versatile plastic used in a wide variety of applications. It is typically opaque in color and is another popular packaging choice for food, personal care and cleaning products.
Where you’ll find it: Milk jugs; bleach, detergent and other household cleaning products; juice bottles; butter tubs; toiletry containers; cereal box liners; kids toys and some plastic bags.
Health + Safety Concerns: Like PET, it is also considered “safe," but some studies have shown that it can leach the endocrine disruptor nonylphenol (added to HDPE as a stabilizer), especially when exposed to ultraviolet light such as the sunlight, and other possible stabilizer chemicals with estrogen-mimicking activity.
Recyclability: Like PET, HDPE is one of the most widely accepted plastics in curbside recycling programs. Flimsy HDPE plastics like single-use bags and films are typically not accepted curbside, but can often be recycled through local drop-off programs. Products made from recycled HDPE include: picnic tables, plastic lumber, park benches, waste bins, bed liners for trucks and other products which require weather-resistance and durability.
How to avoid it: Look for drinks like milk and juice packaged in glass or aluminum; opt for refillable personal care items and household cleaners; if available to you, shop the bulk food section at your local grocery store and bring a set of reusable cloth bags; shop for kids toys at your local thrift shop.
Plastic Recycling Symbol #3: PVC
What is PVC: Polyvinyl chloride is durable and weathers well which is why it’s often found in things like piping and siding. It’s also cheap, making it still a popular choice for products and packaging. It is rarely accepted by recycling programs and often contains phthalates (plasticizers).
Where you’ll find it: Plumbing pipes; shower curtains; inflatable mattresses; clear food packaging; shrink wrap; plastic children's toys; tablecloths; vinyl flooring; children's play mats; and blister packs (such as for medicines).
Health + Safety Concerns: Although tough, PVC is not safe for cooking or heating. PVC contains a phthalate called DEHP, which can cause male traits to become more feminized (DEHP-containing products have been banned in many countries, but not the U.S.). In some products, DEHP has been replaced with another chemical called DiNP, which has similarly been shown to have hormone disruption properties.
Recyclability: PVC and V can rarely be recycled curbside, but it’s sometimes accepted by plastic lumber makers. If you need to dispose of either material, ask your local waste management to see if you should put it in the trash or drop it off at a collection center.
How to avoid it: Opt to wrap your food in beeswax wrap instead of cling wrap; shop for children’s toys at your local secondhand store; look for shower curtains made from mold-resisting organic materials like hemp.
Plastic Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE
What is LDPE: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a flexible and tough plastic, but breakable. It is considered less toxic than other plastics, and relatively safe for use; however, it is not commonly recycled.
Where you’ll find it: Squeezable bottles; bread, frozen food, dry cleaning, produce and shopping bags; tote bags; hot/cold beverage cups; juice and milk cartons; garbage bags.
Health + Safety Concerns: LDPE is considered less toxic than other plastics, and relatively safe for use. It does not contain BPA, but as with most plastics, it can leach estrogenic chemicals
Recyclability: LDPE is not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities might accept it. LDPE plastic when recycled is used for plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles.
How to avoid it: Invest in a set of reusable cloth produce bags and grocery totes; buy your bread from a local bakery and bring your own bag; invest in a reusable beverage cup; look for milk and juices packaged in glass or aluminum
Plastic Recycling Symbol #5: PP
What is PP: Polypropylene is used for similar applications as polyethylenes but is generally stiffer and more heat resistant. It is considered as one of the safer plastics and is often used for containers filled with hot food; however it can still be tricky to recycle with only some curbside recycling programs accepting it.
Where you’ll find it: Yogurt containers; syrup and medicine bottles; caps; straws; kitchenware, take-out and “microwave-safe” plastic containers (i.e. Tupperware); disposable diaper and sanitary pad liners, thermal vests; appliance parts and numerous car parts (bumpers, carpets, fixtures).
Health + Safety Concerns: PP is generally considered a safer plastic for food and drinks usage. Although many of the products made from it are considered “microwave safe”, it is not healthy to consume foods that have been warmed within them.
Recyclability: PP is recyclable and is now accepted by many curbside recycling programs; however it is not accepted by all programs. It is best to check with your local municipality to understand if #5 PP plastic can be recycled in your region. Products made from recycled PP include: signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays.
How to avoid it: In some cases, #5 PP plastic can not be avoided (i.e. medicine), however you can still take measures to avoid it in many cases. Say “no thanks” to straws if you’re able; choose wood or metal kitchenware accessories over plastic; store food in glass or metal containers and always use glass or metal to reheat your food; invest in reusable pads and a menstrual cup.
Plastic Recycling Symbol #6: PS
What is PS: Polystyrene can be found in it’s rigid form or in it’s ultra-light counterpart form, styrofoam. It is notoriously difficult to recycle and is widely known to leach into food when heated.
Where you’ll find it: Disposable plates and cups; meat trays; egg cartons; carry-out containers; aspirin bottles; compact disc cases; packing peanuts; bike helmets
Health + Safety Concerns: Styrene monomer is known to leach which, under long periods of exposure, can cause neurotoxic; like fatigue, nervousness, difficulty in sleeping, hematological; low platelet and hemoglobin values, cytogenetic; chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities, and carcinogenic effects. Using plastic # 6 for hot foods and beverages, like hot coffee in a polystyrene cup, maybe the worst idea of all.
Recyclability: PS #6 plastic is rarely accepted in curbside recycling programs due it’s breakability and the fact that it’s 98% air. Since it’s breaks apart easily, you should put any #6 plastics or styrofoams in an airtight bag or container before sending to the landfill to avoid further dispersion. Products made from recycled PS #6 plastic include: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers.
How to avoid it: Package leftover foods from a restaurant in your own glass or stainless steel containers or even beeswax wrap. Invest in a reusable beverage cup and set of reusable bamboo travel utensils to avoid using the plastic ones.
Plastic Recycling Symbol #7: OTHER
What is OTHER: A wide variety of plastics that don’t fit into the previously numbered categories are lumped into this one, including bioplastics. It is a “use at your own risk” plastic due to it’s high levels of toxicity and rare recyclability in curbside programs.
Where you’ll find it: Three- and five-gallon water bottles, bullet-proof materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon.
Health + Safety Concerns: Any plastic designated #7 is likely to leach BPA and/or BPS, both potent endocrine disruptors linked to interfering with proper mood, growth, development, sexual function, reproductive function, and puberty, among other essential human developmental processes. They are also suspected of increasing the risk of adult reproductive cancers, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Recyclability: #7 Other plastic is not traditionally recycled in local curbside programs, but it’s important to check with your local municipality before tossing to the landfill. You can also check with specialty recycling businesses in your area or Terracycle to recycle these plastics. Products made from recycled #7 Other plastic include: plastic lumber and other custom-made products.
How to avoid it: In some cases, #7 OTHER plastic can not be avoided (i.e. electronics), however you can still take measures to avoid creating demand for new #7 plastics by shopping secondhand for products made with it.