Plastic Labeling System Often Confused for Recyclability of Plastic Products

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Plastic bottles and garbage in a box, one piece showing a recycling symbol.

krisanapong detraphiphat / Getty Images

Have you ever noticed on the bottom of a plastic product having one of 7 symbols? It's a number inside a recycling logo. In seeing a label like this you might have thought, "Oh isn't it nice this product is recyclable..." I'm sorry to inform you that if you had that reaction, you, like most people who see that symbol and number, would be mistaken in your assumption. These labels have nothing to do with the recyclable nature of the plastic. Instead, the label has been used as an international standard to identify what type of plastic is used - called the "PIC." The PIC was introduced by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. to provide a uniform system for the identification of different polymer types.

This becomes clear when you see #7 - "OTHER": In "other" words, you put this logo on it to represent all other forms of plastic not represented in the first 6 categories, independent of whether it is recyclable or not.

In fact typically only a few plastic types are recyclable. As an example yogurt cups which have a "#5" printed on them are not recyclable. I have met a countless number of people across the world who were shocked that this logo did not mean "please recycle me," and were more shocked to find out that a large percentage of the product they were used to placing in their recycling container was in fact being sorted and sent to landfill at the recycling center, since the center could not handle that form of plastic.

So why did the Society of the Plastics Industry use a recycling logo for their identifiers? Why not a circle, a square or even a triangle? If you think something should be done about this, I suggest you join me in writing to the Society of the Plastics Industry and ask them to change
this labeling system
to not confuse the consumer.