Recycling Symbols Decoded

A handy guide to figuring out what goes into the blue box.

These bins make it easy, but only if you know what the symbols on the individual products mean. Harvepino/Shutterstock

You’ve seen the little recycling symbols stamped on plastics, glass, paper, metals and other materials. But what do they mean? We’ve compiled a handy guide to help you decode the dizzying array of icons and ensure that your products are recycled the way they are intended to be.

It's important to know three basic rules when approaching recycling, as laid out by WM, North America's leading waste management provider. WM states that following these rules will make recycling more efficient and effective. Number 1: Recycle bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard. Number 2: Keep food and liquid out of your recycling. Number 3: No loose plastic bags and no bagged recyclables. Keeping that in mind, we can proceed to the general guidelines for recycling items.

Plastics

Most plastics have the "chasing arrows" symbol, with three arrows depicted in a triangle with a number in the middle. The number denotes the type of plastic used; it does not guarantee that an item is recyclable. There are seven categories of plastics, and generally the higher the number, the more difficult it is for the material to be recycled. Plastics 1, 2, and 5 are typically recyclable, whereas plastics 3, 4, 6, and 7 tend to be harder to recycle.

Caps are often made of a different kind of plastic than the bottle they go with, and they're small, so they should go into the trash instead of recycling. All items should be cleaned of food residue before recycling. Steer clear of "wishcycling", which refers to an idealistic assumption that an item will get recycled just because it's in the blue bin—when in reality its presence can contaminate the entire batch. In other words, pay attention to your local guidelines.

Let's take a look at the specific kinds of plastic.

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

Common products: Single-use plastic water bottles, soft drink bottles, cooking oil containers, fruit juice bottles, condiment bottles

Recyclability: Widely accepted for curbside pickup, often turned into more containers, carpets, furniture, fleece and fiber

2. High-Density Polyethylene (PE-HD)

Common products: A low weight, high strength plastic used in some retail plastic bags, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, cleaning detergents and soaps, yogurt tubs, cereal box liners

Recyclability: Widely accepted curbside, recycled into pipes, pens, detergent or shampoo bottles, oil bottles, floor tiles, lumber, benches, traffic cones, outdoor furniture

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Common products: Toys, some food containers and wraps, vinyl siding, blister packs, windows, plastic gloves, water-resistant clothing

Recyclability: Limited, accepted by some plastic lumber makers for recycling into decks, paneling, speed bumps, fencing, binders

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (PE-LD)

Common products: Thin plastic bags used for bread and frozen foods, some plastic containers (e.g., soap dispensers) and cling food wraps, squeezable bottles including toothpaste tubes, furniture, six-pack rings

Recyclability: Can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally; turned into trash can liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes, lumber

5. Polypropylene (PP)

Common products: Straws, yogurt cups, some food containers, furniture, luggage, toys, medicine bottles, rope

Recyclability: Can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally; can be turned into brooms, brushes, cables, bike racks, rakes, pallets, trays

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Common products: Styrofoam containers and cups, some takeout containers, meat trays, egg cartons, packing peanuts

Recyclability: Rarely accepted, and low demand for recycled Styrofoam has limited its acceptance; can be turned into insulation, vents, egg cartons, foam packing, takeout containers, rulers

7. Miscellaneous

Includes plastics not included in the previous six categories, including BPA, polycarbonate, bio-based plastics such as PLA (polylactic acid), acrylic plastic, fiberglass

Common products: Three- and five-gallon water bottles, food containers, sunglasses, bulletproof materials, signs and displays, nylon, baby bottles, sports equipment

Recyclability: Generally not recyclable, but bio-based plastics can sometimes be composted; some can be turned into plastic lumber

Paper

Most paper and cardboard products can be recycled. Single-use coffee cups cannot be recycled, as they contain a thin layer of polypropylene that prevents liquids from leaching out, and it's too labor-intensive for recyclers to separate these layers.

If a paper product can be recycled, it may or may not have one of the following recycling symbols:

20 Pap: Corrugated fiberboard, or cardboard

21 Pap: Non-corrugated fiberboard, or paperboard, such as cereal boxes or snack boxes

22 Pap: Plain paper, such as letter or printer paper

Glass

Most commonly used glass products (e.g., jars and beverage containers) can be recycled, but for other items containing glass (e.g., electronics), check to see what’s accepted locally. Certain types of glass, like Pyrex, crystal, windows, and ovenware, are manufactured using a different process and cannot be recycled. Alternatively, reuse glass containers for as long as you can at home. They make great food storage containers.

70 Gl: Mixed glass

71 Gl: Clear glass

72 Gl: Green glass

Metals

Aluminum beverage cans are widely recycled. They're one of the easiest and most profitable items to recycle and, like glass, can be infinitely recycled without new inputs to maintain quality. However, for other metal items, check to see what is accepted locally.

40 Fe: Steel

41 Alu: Aluminum

When Recycling Isn’t Eco-Friendly

Recycling may always seem like a good idea, but the reality is that throwing certain items into the recycle bin will likely do more harm than good. When disposed of improperly, batteries, electronics and other materials can be hazardous to the environment and human health.

Here are a few words or symbols that indicate an item should never be tossed into the recycle bin (or the trash): Radioactive, Biohazard, Flammable, Corrosive, Explosive, Toxic/Poisonous. For items like these, reach out to your local waste management service to ask for guidance on proper disposal.

Recyclable Versus Recycled

The “three chasing arrows” icon is probably the most well-recognized recycling symbol. But as stated earlier, just because a product has the universal recycling symbol on it doesn’t necessarily mean you should toss it in the recycle bin.

Some products feature the recycling symbol to denote that they are made from recycled content, but they can’t necessarily be recycled again. For instance, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it begins to degrade.

The same goes for plastic. National Geographic reports, "The same piece of plastic can only be recycled about 2-3 times before its quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be used." Every time plastic is recycled, virgin material must be added to upgrade the quality and make it competitive with new plastics on the market. So, really, if something is recyclable, that only refers to a limited period of time.

Glass is one exception; it can be recycled endlessly without ever degrading or losing quality or purity.

It is also important to distinguish between pre-consumer recycled content, which is made from manufacturer waste and hasn’t yet made it to the consumer, and post-consumer recycled content, which has been used, disposed of, and made into something else. If the product doesn’t say it was made from post-consumer recycled content, it probably wasn’t.

Compostable

An increasing number of plastics are touted as compostable or biodegradable in an effort to reduce their environmental impact. This isn't as good as it sounds. Biodegradable plastics can be labeled as such with very small percentages of biodegradable material in them, as little as 20% plant material. Furthermore, they require very precise conditions in which to break down, but these are rarely met—and studies have found that biodegradable plastics do not break down in oceans.

Most compostable products only break down in industrial composting facilities, so double-check that your area has that option; otherwise, you'll have to throw it in the trash because they cannot be mixed with regular plastics. Backyard compostable is a better option, where something breaks down in a home composter, but these are harder to find.

You can check the Biodegradable Products Institute's (BPI) list of certified compostable products if in doubt of how to proceed with disposal. You can also check out this infographic from the University of Technology Sydney for how to dispose of various plastics. Some paper may be compostable, but any including magazines, catalogs, printed cards and most printed or metallic wrapping paper should not be; you'll want to avoid anything with potentially harmful inks that could contaminate soil.

These guidelines are intended to be a starting point. When in doubt about whether to recycle, reuse, or compost a particular item, be sure to contact your local waste management department or visit Earth911.com for more information on what products can be recycled, and how to recycle them, in your area.