12 Months of Sustainable Living / Plastic

Recycling Symbols Explained: What Can and Can’t be Recycled

Understanding Plastic Recycling Symbols

It seems like a day doesn’t go by where a video of a beach filled with plastic bottles or an ocean animal injured by a plastic product doesn’t fill our feeds, emails and general lives. Thanks to documentaries like Blue Planet II and organisations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, it’s become almost impossible not to know about the state of our plastic waste on the planet. Now that we know what’s gone wrong we all want to make the change, we all want to start saving the planet… But how do we actually do that when it comes to plastic.

I always used to think all plastic could be recycled, but it soon dawned on me that that’s not the case and that just because a recycling symbol, or something looking similar to a recycling symbol, is on the product, it doesn’t mean it can be recycled in the same way. I needed to educate myself on these symbols and I now truly believe that we can only start making a difference to the plastic problem facing us, once we understand what, and how exactly recycling works.

General Recycling Symbols vs Plastic Recycling Symbols

To be honest, I never knew there was a difference between general recycling symbols and plastic recycling symbols, but I now know there is. The difficulty is that the general recycling symbols differ from country to country, but at the same time you cannot start on your recycling process before you understand these symbols, so for the purpose of this blog post, that is where we will start…

General Recycling Symbols

General Symbols

The Green Dot: This one is a bit misleading as it doesn’t mean the product can be recycled or has been recycled at all. Rather it means that the producer of the product has made a financial contribution toward recycling or reclaiming products in the EU (not very helpful to us).

The Green Dot

Mobius Loop: This is the general symbol most of us associate with recycling. It means that the product is capable of being recycled, but not that it is recycled or that it will in fact be accepted to be recycled by your local recycling program. It sometimes has a % symbol in the middle to show how much of the product is made up of recycled material.

Mobius Loop

Plastic Resin Code: Similar to the Mobius Loop, but with a number in the middle. This one indicates the type of plastic the product is made of. Read on below for more on this.

Plastic Resin Code

Tidyman: The Tidyman really has nothing to do with recycling, but is a friendly reminder to throw away your trash and be a good citizen keeping your space clean.

Tidyman

Glass: This one asks you to remember to recycle the glass bottle. Not that it has been recycled before.

Glass

Recyclable Aluminium: This symbol shows that a product is made from recycled aluminium.

Recyclable Aluminium

Recyclable Steel: This indicates that the product is made from steel and thus you can recycle it with your local recycling.

Recyclable Steel

Waste Electricals: Electricalproducts with this symbol should not be placed in the general waste, but should be recycled through electronic recycling schemes (these can be found at some local supermarkets in both the UK and South Africa).

Waste Electricals

Compostable: This symbol is on products that can be composted according to the European standard EN 13432/14955. These plastics should not be placed in the general recycling.

Compostable

FSC Logo: This logo is placed on products that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as sustainably sources forest products (paper and wood products). I wrote a blog post about why this is such an important organisation to support that you can read here.

FSC Logo

Recycling Symbols In the UK

Even though these symbols are specific to the UK and UK municipalities, they are a great way to understand generally what can and can’t be recycled as well.

Widely Recycled: This is applied to products like plastic bottles that can be recycled by 75% or more of the local municipalities in the UK

Widely Recycled

Widely Recycled–Rinse: This is applied to food packaging that can be recycled, but need to be rinsed before recycling, like food trays.

Widely Recycled Rinse

Widely Recycled–Rinse. Lid On: This can be found on products like glass bottles. These should be rinsed, and the lids should be kept on the bottles. The reason is because the lids might be too small on their own and can fall through the gaps during the recycling process on their own.

Widely Recycled Rinse Lid On

Widely Recycled–Flatten. Cap On: Similar to above this is will be on bottles, but rather plastic than glass. Milk bottles and cartons are good examples of such products and flattening them is both practical and makes recycling easier.

Widely Recycled Flatten Cap On

Bottle – Widely Recycled, Sleeve – Not Yet Recycled: This is where it starts becoming more difficult and where we need to start being more conscious about what we buy and throw in the recycling. In this case, the glass or plastic bottle can be recycled, but the sleeve with the brand’s name on it is not recyclable. Best practice is to remove any plastic sleeve from the bottles you throw in the recycling. If the sleeve is paper, you can take it off and throw it in the recycling separately, which makes the recycling process much easier.

Bottle - Widely Recycled, Sleeve - Not Yet Recycled

Widely Recycled at Recycling Centres: These are metal paint cans and cannot be recycled in the general recycling. Best to find a recycling centre or inquire with your local council.

Widely Recycled at Recycling Centres

Widely Recycled at Recycling Points: Check Locally for Kerbside: These are products like Tetrapack food and drink cartons. They can be recycled in most local recycling, but are also collected at designated collection points across the UK.

Widely Recycled at Recycling Points: Check Locally for Kerbside

Recycle with Bags at Larger Stores: Check Locally for Kerbside: These are products like breakfast cereal bags, toilet and kitchen roll wraps, bread bags, grocery produce, multipack shrink wrap, and newspaper and magazine wraps. They can be recycled at your local supermarket’s carrier bag collection point. Best to ask once you’re there.

Recycle with Bags at Larger Stores: Check Locally for Kerbside

Check Local Recycling: This is a more tricky one and consists of products that are recycled by 20 -75% of local municipalities in the UK, including some plastic. Generally, if it has this sign on it and you can’t find whether your council can recycle it, add it to the recycling and it will either go through or be thrown out during the recycling process.

Check Local Recycling

Not Yet Recycled: According the Recycle Now’s website this is the 20% of products that cannot currently be recycled (although sometimes it feels like it’s the majority of the products we buy).

Not Yet Recycled

Plastic Recycling Symbols

Unlike the general recycling symbols, which really aren’t that general across the globe, the symbols on plastic products are much more reliable and standardised across countries. They are however more difficult to understand and also distinguish at time, but this is a good place to start.

The book No. More.Plastic. by Martin Dorey was a great starting point for me when it came to plastic recycling and it’s well worth a read if you would like to learn more about what can and can’t be recycled. You can find a copy on Amazon here.

Plastic Types

Plastic is divided into 7 different categories, each with its own uses and characteristics. The symbol you’re looking for on plastic is called the Plastic resin Code (see above). Once again the three chasing arrow symbol can be deceiving as not all plastic can be recycled and some cannot even be reused. The numbers inside the chasing arrows are the real thing we need to look out for as this is the indicator of whether plastic can be recycled or not. Here’s what you need to know.

#1 PET/PETE: Polyethylene Terephthalate

This is your plastic water and soft drink bottles, fruit juice containers, cooking oil bottles and food trays.

These can be RECYCLED – Should be recycled but not reused.

This plastic is recycled into small fibres used in clothes, rugs, life jackets and more.

#2 HDPE: High-Density Polyethylene

HDPE

These are shopping bags, yogurt containers, milk bottles, shampoo and body wash containers, detergent bottles and toys. The plastic is hard and durable and floats in water.

These can be RECYCLED – It’s considered the safest form of plastic and is the most commonly recycled, as well as the easiest to recycle.

This plastic is recycled to make durable items like park benches, waste bins, picnic tables and more.

#3 PVC: Polyvinyl Chloride

PVA

These are clear food packaging, pipes and hoses, teething rings, children’s and dog’s toys, window frames and other garden ornaments. Any soft flexible plastic.

These can SOMETIMES BE RECYCLED – Considered toxic and has been dubbed the “poison plastic”. Not safe for food use. Should not be reused and difficult to recycle (only about 1% gets recycled).

#4 LDPE: Low-Density Polyethylene

LDPE

Used for rubbish bags, squeezable bottles, cling film/wrap and bread bags. Also found in some clothing and furniture. Most commonly found in most plastic shopping bags bought in stores today.

These can be RECYCLED – But unfortunately are not recycled that much. This is changing as people become more aware of the plastic problem and more drop-off points for these plastics become available (ask at your local supermarket whether they recycle these plastic bags for you). Also, less toxic and safe for use.

These plastics are REUSABLE.

Products made from recycled LDPE are plastic lumber, floor tiles and garbage can liners. Not as strong and durable as HDPE plastic.

#5 PP: Polypropylene

PP

Products made from PP are plastic straws, bottle caps, food tubs, disposable diapers, potato chip bags, and plastic tape. Polypropylene is also used to seal products against moisture, for example, the sealant on your cereal box.

These can be RECYCLED – Not as common to recycle curb side, but is slowly becoming more acceptable. You might need to look into whether your municipality recycles this type of plastic. Safe to REUSE this plastic as well.

The recycled Polypropylene is used to make battery casings, brooms, bins and trays.

#6 PS& PS-E: Polystyrene

PS

This is your plastic cutlery, CD cases, cups and plates, foam packaging in boxes, takeaway boxes and anything made from Styrofoam (cups, pool noodles etc). It’s inexpensive and lightweight and breaks up into millions of little pieces. It also contains styrene which contains carcinogen (and causes cancer). The chemicals in polystyrene have been linked to numerous illnesses and digestive problems.

These are DIFFICULT TO RECYCLE AND NOT OFTEN DONE – Because it breaks into so many small pieces it’s almost impossible to recycled and should really be AVOIDED COMPLETELY.

#7 PC, OTHER: BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN

Other

This category refers to all other plastics that are NOT RECYCABLE and should NOT BE REUSED.

This is plastic used in computers and electronics, baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles, and car parts. Most importantly (and the worst of it all) this type of plastic includes BPA which is a hormone disruptor and has been linked to causing cancer. Any plastic with the letters PC on it should be COMPLETELY AVOIDED.

Newly developed bio degradableplastic made from corn starch also falls in the number 7 category but have the letters PLA on them. These can be COMPOSTED but NOT RECYCLED.

There is a lot to consider and remember, but to sum it up, never used or buy plastics with a number 7 or 6 and where possible always opt for plastics with the number 2 on it as it’s the most durable and easiest to recycle.

Understanding how plastic works is the first step in living more sustainably with plastic. We might never get rid of plastic completely, but if you know what can and can’t be recycled, and what plastic is safe and what is definitely not safe to use, then we are one step closer to creating a cleaner planet for ourselves, the animals and the oceans.

Hi, I'm Andri. A 20-something creative, content creator, writer, reader, traveler, healthy living enthusiast and eco warrior! My day job is in digital publishing, but just like The Loud Library, I am full of contradictions. I love my bunny rabbit Olive, cows and sharing my journey to rediscover my spark.

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