Recycling symbols explained

Am I recycling my plastic waste or am I "wishcycling", which can cause many problems for recyclers? Learn what the recycling symbols and numbers mean, and what exactly is accepted in your locality so you when you cannot reduce or reuse, you are recycling properly.

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The belief that recycling symbols means an item is recyclable is a common misconception. Instead, the chasing arrows surround a number that tells us what kind of plastic the item was constructed from. That number can help us determine if we can recycle that plastic item or not. 

Unfortunately, there are not many statewide recycling regulations. Every town has different recycling programs, so it can be difficult to find out what can or cannot be recycled in an area. This leads to what we call “wishcycling”. Wishcycling is throwing stuff in the recycling bin that is not actually recyclable. Knowing what type of plastic you are dealing with is the first step in this process. 

Recycling symbol 1: PET or PETE

Polyethylene Terephthalate is the most common single use plastic on earth. This is the plastic that is used for plastic water bottles, peanut butter containers, and so much more. If your local recycling program takes PET plastics, make sure to clean off any food from the packaging before recycling it. 

Recycling symbol 2: HDPE

High-density Polyethylene can be made into a variety of plastic items, such as plastic bags, shampoo bottles, and cereal box liners. Some HDPE items can be recycled at certain localities, but plastic bags and similar items usually cannot be recycled.  

Recycling symbol 3: PVC or V

Polyvinyl Chloride and Vinyl can very rarely be recycled. It is a high-strength plastic material used to make items such as pipes and cable insulation. 

Recycling symbol 4: LDPE

Low-density Polyethylene is a flexible plastic material that makes items like squeezable bottles and clear plastic bags. 

Recycling symbol 5: PP

Polypropylene can be used to make a variety of food containers because it has a high melting point. Therefore it can hold hot substances. 

Recycling symbol 6: PS

Polystyrene can be made into a solid or a foam plastic. It is used to make egg cartons, carryout containers, CD cases, and more. 

Recycling symbol 7: Miscellaneous

Plastics that do not fit into the previous categories are labeled with a 7. Sometimes they are a combination of plastics, and usually these items cannot be recycled. 

Once you know what type of plastic you have, you can see if your recycling program will take it. Your local government website will likely have recycling information, or looking up your town  recycling should help you find what can be recycled in your locality. 

If you cannot find out if an object is recyclable or not, reach out to your local Recycling Program Manager. 

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