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What’s the meaning behind recycling symbols and numbers?

Not sure how to tell if something can be recycled or what those plastic recycling numbers mean? We can help.


Reading Time: 5 minutes

Written by Eunice Samson

plastic bottles in a blue plastic basket

Can your item be recycled?

  • Look for the recycling symbol: 3 green arrows arranged in a triangle.

  • Check plastic recycling numbers: 1-2 is widely recycled while 3-6 varies by location.

  • Speak to your local recycling centre if you’re unsure.

  • Make sure any items containing food have been cleaned and separated.

While we still have a long way to go, more and more households are recycling their leftover packaging and choosing more sustainable items when shopping – or at least, they’re trying to. Unfortunately, it’s not always clear what can be recycled. That’s where this guide to plastic recycling numbers and recycle sign meanings comes in.

Just because you spot the recycling symbol on an item doesn’t mean it is widely recycled in your local area. Always check before disposing of it.

Understanding recycling symbols: meaning and design

Before getting into the meaning, let’s make sure we can identify the recycling symbol:

What does the recycling symbol look like?

The universal symbol for recycling is a triangle made of 3 green arrows.

What does the recycle symbol mean?

In plain and simple terms, the symbol means that and object is able to be recycled. However, it does not mean that this service is available in your local area.

The Poll

Would you be more likely to buy a Cleaning or Laundry product that had a QR code visible on the pack over a product without a QR code? 

0 Votes

Do recycled products have the recycling symbol on them?

Any product that can be recycled will have this symbol on it – it doesn’t matter if the item is already made of recycled materials.

Understanding recycling numbers: meaning behind plastic recycling numbers

For certain items, the basic recycling symbol will be accompanied by a number. This is usually only found on plastic and the recycling numbers range from 1 to 7.

  1. Spotted the number 1? This plastic type is Polyethylene terephthalate. This is most commonly used on water bottles, cooking oil and even medicine containers and can usually be recycled as part of your normal household waste.

  2. Spotted the number 2? This plastic type is high-density Polyethylene. This is most commonly used for laundry detergent and shampoo containers and can usually be recycled as part of your normal household waste.

  3. Spotted the number 3? This plastic type is Polyvinyl chloride. This is most commonly used for pipes and shower curtains. These often require specialist recycling.

  4. Spotted the number 4? This plastic type is low-density Polyethylene. This is most commonly used for cling film and sandwich bags. It can become stuck in recycling sorting machines so always check with your local authority before trying to recycle.

  5. Spotted the number 5? This plastic is Polypropylene. This is most commonly used for bottle caps and yoghurt tubs. Recycling options will vary by location.

  6. Spotted the number 6? This plastic is Polystyrene. This is most commonly used as packing peanuts and disposable cups and cutlery. Whilst disposable cutlery and cups are accepted at most recycling centres you should take care to check other number 6 plastics like packing peanuts.

  7. Spotted a number 7? This plastic is often a combination of plastic types within numbers 1-6 or occasionally a less well-known and less commonly used plastic. Take care to check with your local recycling centre about these types of plastic as many may not be recyclable.

Although this guide shows you a few examples of each type of plastic, it is important to check the recycling number before you dispose of it. This is especially important as some products, such as bottles, may use different plastics in their lids.

With the information you’ve found here, you should now have everything you need to be able to organise your recycling. For more sustainability advice.

Do you want to learn which household cleaning tasks cause the most stress?  Then read our Heated Household data analysis. 

Originally published