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What Do The Different Plastic Recycling Symbols Mean?

Posted by Andres Jimenez on
what do plastic recycling symbols mean

The number seven is significant for many reasons: it’s a prime number, there are seven wonders of the world, and seven represents the jackpot on slot machines. More importantly, there are also seven different plastic recycling symbols in the United States.

You may think that seems like a lot of symbols just for recycling, and we agree. But these days, since most of our world seems to be made of plastic, it isn’t too surprising. Plastic is everywhere: in the packaging of new products, in the kitchenware we use to prepare food, in the toys that we play with as young kids. The list goes on. 

While most of the plastic we use on a daily basis can be recycled, it often ends up in places it shouldn’t. Many studies show that around 30% of plastic packaging ends up in our oceans each year. And upwards of 90% of new plastic created has actually never been recycled. 

In theory, recycling seems simple. But in practice, there are so many different rules and symbols that it can be complicated to figure out exactly how to recycle all the types of plastics out there. 

Most people know the symbol of three chasing arrows forming a triangle and associate it with recycling. What’s important to know, however, is that this symbol does not mean that every product is recyclable. The triangle is, instead, the symbol for plastic resin, and the numbers one through seven found inside the triangle represent the different types of plastic. 

Let’s explore what the various types of plastic are and what the different numbers mean. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE

If you open your fridge and see a bottle of ketchup or a container of peanut butter, you have a few examples of PET/PETE plastic in your home. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is an inexpensive and lightweight plastic most often used in single-use bottled beverages. And while PET plastic is easy to recycle, around 80% of PET bottles and containers do not end up back in recycling plants. 

Most PET or PETE plastic can be recycled through curbside recycling programs, as long as the container has been emptied and rinsed of any food. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE

Next time you take a swig from your jug of milk or shampoo your hair, note that you’re using a high density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic. A versatile plastic with a variety of uses, HDPE is found in a range of packaging from shopping bags to cereal box liners to yogurt tubs. 

While flimsy plastics like grocery bags typically can’t be recycled, most other HDPE can be tossed into your local recycling bins. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #3: PVC or V

Many people have heard of or used PVC pipe, but might not know that PVC itself is actually a type of plastic. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is commonly used for piping and siding because of its tough and sturdy nature. The plastic is both cheap and durable, which leads to it being found in a wide variety of products and packaging. 

Unfortunately, PVC can rarely be recycled. If you’re looking to get rid of any PVC products, ask your local waste management if there is a collection center or if you should drop it in the trash. 

PVC also releases toxins when melted down, so remember never to burn any PVC products. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE

When you pick up your freshly pressed clothes from the dry cleaner, they typically come protected by a low density polyethylene (LDPE) bag. LDPE can also be found in your tooth paste tubes, some furniture, and a lot of squeezable bottles, for example.

Historically, LDPE has not been recyclable in most recycling programs. However, check with your local program as some locations have started to accept it. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #5: PP

The plastic straw you use to sip your coffee (iced or hot, we won’t judge) is an example of a polypropylene (PP) plastic. It typically has a high melting point, so many containers that hold hot liquid are made of PP. 

While PP hasn’t always been accepted by recycling programs, it’s becoming more and more common. Make sure that all of the food is out of the container before you throw it in your recycling bin. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #6: PS

Most of us are very familiar with polystyrene (PS) plastic from takeout dinners or packing peanuts. More commonly known as Styrofoam, PS is notoriously bad in many ways: it’s a possible human carcinogen, it is extremely difficult to recycle, and it disperses far and wide when broken apart. 

Most recycling programs do not accept Styrofoam, however the good thing is that many manufacturers have transitioned to using PET instead of PS. If you throw your Styrofoam away, place it in a bag so the pieces do not disperse when put in a trash compactor. 

Plastic Recycling Symbol #7: Miscellaneous 

Any type of plastic resin not in one of the other six groups falls into this ‘lucky’ seventh category. Both polycarbonate, a potentially harmful hard plastic, and polylactic acid (PLA), a carbon-neutral plastic made from plants, are found in this category. Any DVDs, nylon, or signs can also be found in this typically unrecyclable group. 

Oftentimes these miscellaneous plastics cannot be recycled, but check with your local program to see if they are accepted. 

Here at Grab Green, our pouches are a #7 plastic. While we fully support recycling and zero waste, we recognize that not all recycling facilities can recycle this type of substrate. Please check with your community recycling facility for all of your recycling options.

After all of this information, we understand that recycling may seem daunting. But fear not, you can keep our handy descriptions by your side to always know which numbers are which. Taking the extra few seconds to figure out if your object is recyclable is helping our world in so many ways.

Stay tuned for an exciting Grab Green update—we’re developing a zero waste/zero plastic option for our pod products! We’re getting rid of all possible waste to help you avoid the confusion and stress of figuring out what to do with different types of plastic. 

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