Recycling Symbols Decoded

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.

Plastics

The recycling symbols for plastics are divided into seven categories. Generally, the higher the number, the more difficult it is for the material to be recycled. However, just because the product has a number on it doesn’t necessarily mean it can be recycled, nor that it’s eco-friendly. In fact, some elements of plastics — such as bisphenol-A, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride — have been shown to have harmful effects on health and the environment.

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

Common products: Single-use plastic water bottles, soft-drink bottles

Recyclability: Widely accepted

2. High-Density Polyethylene (PE-HD)

Common products: Some retail plastic bags, milk jugs and shampoo bottles

Recyclability: Widely accepted

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Common products: Toys, some food containers/wraps, vinyl siding

Recyclability: Limited

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (PE-LD)

Common products: Thin plastic bags, some plastic containers (e.g., soap dispensers) and cling food wraps

Recyclability: Can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally

5. Polypropylene (PP)

Common products: Straws, yogurt cups, some food containers

Recyclability: Can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Common products: Styrofoam containers and cups, some takeout containers

Recyclability: Sometimes accepted, but low demand for recycled Styrofoam has limited its acceptance

7. Other

Includes plastics not included in the previous six categories, including BPA, polycarbonate and bio-based plastics

Common products: Water bottles, food containers

Recyclability: Generally not recyclable, but bio-based plastics can sometimes be composted

Paper

Most paper and cardboard products can be recycled. However, there are a few recycling exceptions, including paper towels, napkins and plastic-coated boxes. If a paper product can be recycled, it may or may not have one of the following recycling symbols:

20 Pap

Cardboard

21 Pap

Mixed paper (often found in magazines, mail)

22 Pap

Paper (letter/printer paper, etc.)

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. Alternatively, reuse glass containers.

70 Gl

Mixed glass

71 Gl

Clear glass

72 Gl

Green glass

Metals

Aluminum beverage cans are widely recycled. However, for other metal items, check to see what is accepted locally.

40 Fe

Steel

41 Alu

Aluminum

or

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 symbols that indicate an item should never be tossed into the recycle bin (or the trash):

Radioactive

Biohazard

Flammable

Toxic/poisonous

Keep in mind that many items, such as batteries and electronics, may not contain any of these symbols, but they should never be thrown away or recycled. Instead, check with your local sanitation department to see how hazardous waste should be disposed of in your area.

Recyclable vs. Recycled

The “three chasing arrows” icon is probably the most well-recognized recycling symbol. But 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, and 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.

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

Although recyclable products aren’t necessarily compostable (and vice versa), more items may be compostable than you think. In fact, it is preferable to compost biodegradable plastic, because it may not degrade properly in oxygen-deprived landfills.

The symbol above is often used to mark products certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). (Other symbols may be used to indicate compostability, especially outside the U.S.) But even if a product doesn’t have a symbol, it might still be compostable, so check BPI’s list of certified compostable products.

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 sanitation department or visit Earth911.com for more information on what products can be recycled, and how to recycle them, in your area.