What Do The Recycling Codes On Plastics Mean?
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Posted on 30 Mar 2017 21:56

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When it was common for consumers to pay deposits for bottles and then return the bottles to a retailer to reclaim the deposit, the type of plastics used in the bottles were known. Now that curbside recycling or drop-off recycling centers are common, it is much more difficult to identify particular types of plastic. Plastic resin identification coding was developed to assist in this identification. Therefore, most plastic packaging, including bottles and food packets, have a symbol on them which identifies the type of plastic used. This symbol is a number from one to seven enclosed in a "chasing arrows" recycle symbol.


The symbols have proven to be confusing to consumers. The chasing arrows, to most of us, mean recycling. So, the plastic codes make it seem like the symbols mean that the plastic is "recyclable." However, depending on your location, some plastics may not be accepted into the waste management system. This is particularly true of plastics with a 3 or 6 code. The codes were not meant to guarantee recyclability to the consumer, but to assist recycling facilities in sorting different types of plastic. Fortunately, more and more communities are beginning to offer 'single stream' recycling pickup where all plastic codes, one through seven, are accepted.

What do the Codes Mean?

Different types of plastics are made out of different types of resins. So, the codes are actually Resin Identification Codes. The numbered code symbols usually, but not always, are shown with an abbreviation beneath. Here are the codes:


The chart below shows the type of plastic identified by each code.

Code Type of Plastic
1 PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene
3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene
5 PP (polypropylene)
6 PS (polysterne)
7 Other Plastics (wide variety including polycarbonate*; or a mixture of resins)

*Polycarbonates used in reusable water bottles and other food and beverage applications have caused controversy due to BPA, which may leach into food or liquids


The first code, number 1, or PETE (usually expressed as PET) is a very common type of plastic. It is used to make plastic bottles for soft drinks, water, juice, sports drinks, mouthwash, catsup, and salad dressing, as well as:

  • plastic jars for peanut butter, jelly, jam, and pickles
  • microwave safe food trays
  • plastic films
  • textiles (i.e. "polyester")
  • carpet
  • monofilament
  • strapping
  • fiberfill

Every year, thousands of PET bottles are thrown away. Those of us who recycle the bottles tend to assume that they are turned into other bottles. This is usually not the case.

Plastic PET bottles ready for recycling

Each year, thousands of PETE bottles like these are thrown away.
The ones that are recycled become products that are not easily
recyclable. The only real solution is to use less plastic.

Plastic PET bottles ready for recycling

Each year, thousands of PETE bottles like these are thrown away.
The ones that are recycled become products that are not easily
recyclable. The only real solution is to use less plastic.

If you've ever wondered how they clean plastic bottles in order to turn them into more bottles, you have uncovered a central problem. Stringent health standards must be met for any plastic material used for food or beverage packaging. This makes recyclings PET bottles into new bottles more difficult. Although there are some operations which use an extrusion process to mold a layer of recycled PET in between two layers of virgin PET, this is not the major use of reclaimed PET. When beverage bottles or food packaging does use reclaimed PET, it is usually only up to 25%.

PET can also be used for nonfood bottles, such as household detergent or other household products. However, 3PVC is also used for these bottles, and recycled PET is unlikely to be used when PVC is cheaper.

The major market for recycled PET is carpet fiber, fleece jackets, comforter fill and textiles. It is also used for film or sheet plastic as well as strapping. Most of these are the end of the line, after which the material is very unlikely to be recycled, and will end up in a landfill. This is another way in which those "chasing arrows" are misleading. They make it seem like plastic is endlessly recyclable.


Use for Different Plastic Types, New and Recycled

Each of the other six types of plastic have their own major uses when new and when recycled. Below are the markets for each:

  • 1 PETE
    • Common Uses when New: plastic bottles for soft drinks, water, juice, sports drinks, mouthwash, catsup, and salad dressing; plastic jars for peanut butter, jelly, jam, and pickles: microwave safe food trays; plastic films; textiles (i.e. "polyester"); carpet; monofilament; strapping; fiberfill
      • Major Uses for Recycling: carpet fiber, fleece jackets, comforter fill, textiles
  • 2 HDPE
    • Common Uses When New: milk jugs; household and industrial chemicals such as bleach, dishwashing detergent, household cleaners; some shampoo bottles; some trash bags; grocery bags and other shopping bags; butter and yogurt containers; cereal box liners
      • Major Uses for Recycling: non-food bottles such as shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, household cleaners, motor oil, & antifreeze; plastic 'lumber' for outdoor decking, fences, and picnic tables; pipe, floor tiles, buckets, crates, flower pots, garden edging, recycling bins; binder; sheets and films
  • 3 PVC
    • Common Uses When New: pipe for plumbing, house siding, windows, shampoo bottles, mineral water bottles, shower curtains, wire coatings, rubber duckies, medical equipment, some cling wraps or other food wraps
      • Major Uses for Recycling: house siding, piping, other types of building materials
  • 4 LDPE
    • Common Uses When New: bread bags, frozen food bags, produce bags, dry cleaning bags, shopping bags, garbage bags, reusable tote bags, some flexible container lids, flexible bottles such as squeeze bottles; textiles such as for athletic wear; coatings for paper milk cartons and hot and cold beverage cups; plastic furniture, some carpets, injection molding applications, adhesives, sealants, wire and cable coverings
      • Major Uses for Recycling: new bags, shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, paneling, floor tile, compost bins, trash cans, landscaping edging and lumber; other plastic lumbers for outdoor use; plastic sheeing and films in general
  • 5 PP
    • Common Uses When New: packaging, bags, sacks, wraps, reusable plastic containers (Tupperware and others), ketchup bottles and some other bottles; most bottle caps, textiles such as for thermal underwear; some plastic furniture, appliance parts, hinges, cabinets, storage containers, ropes, some carpets
      • Major Uses for Recycling: car parts, milk crates, ice scrapers, brooms, brushes, rakes, storage bins, shipping pallets, trays
  • 6 PS
    • Common Uses When New: Can be foamed (i.e. Styrofoam)* or rgid and used for some food-service packaging, bottles, and food containers; plastic cups (Red plastic SOLO cups and some coffe cups), plates, bowls, cutlery, clamshell takeout containers; meat and poultry trays; food containers for yogurt and other foods. Also used foamed for protective packaging for furniture, electronics and other delicate products; packing peanuts or "loose fill;" compact disc cases, asprin bottles. Other uses include agricultural trays, electronic housings, cable spools, building insulation, coat hangers, medical products, toys
      • Major Uses for Recycling: insulation, thermometers, light switch plates, vents, desk trays, rulers, license plate frames, DVD cases, CD trays. When foamed used for egg shell cartons. Also used for plastic moldings and expandable foam protective packaging
  • * 7 Other
    • Common Uses When New: reusable water bottles, sippy sups, large water coolers, oven baking bags, some citris juice, some catsup bottles, sports equipment, medical and dental equipment, barrier layers
      • Major Uses for Recycling: bottles, plastic lumber such as for park and picnic benches


* Styrofoam is actually a Registered Trademark of the Dow Chemical Corporation for its brand of extruded polysterine foam. The term is used generically to refer to the insulated plastic foam material we enounter daily. It is a general misconception that insulated foam cups, clamshell containers, packing peanuts, disposable coolers, and molded protective packing is styrofoam. These items are actually made of expanded polysterine, the foam version of polysterine. Although this product is recyclable, it cannot usually be recycled in municipal systems. Some communities may have a special dropoff location for "styrofoam." Due to the low weight and very high volume, recycling it is very expensive and represents a closed loop (like many plastics), as it cannot be made into more foam but must be recycled into a lower grade product, itself unlikely to be recycled. This is an example of downcycling.

Also see 7 Vague Statements Companies Use to Greenwash Products.

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