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Your ultimate guide to plastic recycling: symbols and tips for the home

Help secure our planet’s future with our guide on how to recycle plastic at home.


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When it comes to recycling, we all need to be doing our bit. If we don’t start changing the way we get rid of our waste, the world will soon become one big landfill - and that’s definitely not something any of us want! While recycling in South Africa has been on the rise, we can still do more, particularly when it comes to plastic. If you want to step up your recycling game, take a look at this guide on plastic recycling and learn everything you need to know.

Remember you can’t recycle dirty plastic! Wash your plastics after every use with a dishwashing liquid, like Sunlight, so they can have the chance to be recycled into new material.

How to recycle plastic

There are a few ways you can recycle your plastic waste, including taking it to a local pick-up bin or selling it to recycling companies.

If you’re not sure how to recycle plastic at home or in your local area, get in touch with the authorities to find out. It's also a good idea to see if you can reduce your use of plastic so there is less waste in the first place - try our 5 simple habits to reduce plastic waste to get started or read our guide on easy ways to reduce, reuse, and recycle for tips that apply to all of your household waste.

Once you know how your local area processes plastic recycling you can start preparing your items for the recycling bin and that means learning what plastics can, and can't, be recycled.

What do the plastic recycling symbols mean?

Most people know that the triangular symbol made of three arrows represents recycling but what about the number inside the triangle? Plastic recycling symbols use this number to indicate what type of plastic has been used and whether it can be recycled. Our guide to plastic recycling symbols explains each of the 7 numbers:

  • 1 - means the plastic is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is used for common plastic products like water bottles.

  • 2 - signifies that the product is made out of HDPE (high-density polyethylene) which is usually used for detergent or milk bottles as well as children’s toys.

  • 3 - shows the product is made of polyvinyl chloride which is used for items such as food trays as well as food foils.

  • 4 - refers to low-density polyethylene which is commonly used in plastic bags and food wraps.

  • 5 - means the plastic is PP, or polypropylene, which is used to make items like yoghurt pots and milk containers as well as car bumpers and luggage. 

  • 6 - stands for polystyrene which is used in product packaging as well as items such as refrigerator trays. 

  • 7 - represents other plastics such as acrylic or fiberglass. 

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Which plastics can be recycled?

Now that you know what the numbers mean, let's look at which ones can be recycled.

  1. Plastic recycling symbols 1, 2 and 5 are all commonly recycled. You should be able to recycle or reuse this plastic packaging easily.

  2. Plastic recycling symbols 3, 6 and 7 are not suitable for recycling or reuse. Avoid buying them where possible.

  3. Plastic recycling symbol 4  can be reused but are not always included in local recycling. Check with your authority to find out. 

How is plastic recycled: step by step

If you’re interested in plastic recycling ideas and how you can help the environment, a good start is to learn how it all works. Here’s what happens in the average plastic recycling process:

  • Collection: your plastic waste is first collected from a local recycling point or from your home.

  • Sorting: the waste is sorted into a number of different categories, including the type of plastic it’s made from.

  • Washing: labels, adhesives, and all non-plastic parts are removed.

  • Resizing: the plastic is shredded into much smaller pieces, making it easier to recycle.

  • Separating the small particles are then identified and separated based on a number of factors.

  • Compounding: the small particles are melted together into new plastic pellets which can be used to produce other items.

What is recycled plastic used for?

Once you’ve learnt tips on recycling plastic and how to reuse your waste, the items that were once milk bottles, yoghurt pots, and plastic bags can be made into a whole heap of new products such as:

  • Clothing materials: the polyester fibres that make up most of our clothes are the largest market for recycled PET bottles across the world.

  • Construction materials: recycled plastics are commonly used in building materials, such as flooring or pipes.

  • Packaging items: as more and more companies are committing to protecting the environment, more are using recycled plastic for frequently consumed items such as bottles or trays.

There’s no time to waste. Ditch the landfill and start recycling plastic (and other household waste) today! Remember, it's not just everyday packaging like plastic, paper, aluminium, and glass that can be recycled though, you can also recycle old clothes and items such as batteries.

  • Clean your plastic items of any food or dirt.

  • Sort them by following the plastic recycling symbols to work out what you can and can’t recycle.

  • Find a local place to recycle or a company who will pick it up from your home.

Originally published