What is the Meaning of the Recycle Symbols?

If you have ever wondered what those little triangles that are often displayed on plastic bottles meant, then you are in the right place as in this article, we will be learning about the many recycle symbols and numbers and what they stand for. Plastic waste is a global problem. This is because plastic has a lot of industrial applications in all parts of the world. 

 Pet bottles and polythene are made from plastic and are one of the common waste products that are occasionally recycled in all parts of the world. While you might be thinking that the “chasing arrows” sign you see usually at the bottom of plastic containers and products means that it is recyclable, this is not entirely true as the real deciding factor is the numbers which are inscribed inside the triangle. 

 History of Recycle Symbols 

Just like every other thing on earth has an origin, recycle symbols also have a history. The birth of recycle symbols began when there was a global call for a worldwide awareness of the potential dangers of environmental pollution. We can trace the origin of the symbol to the very ever first Earth Day which took place in 1970. 

A large American producer of recyclable paperboard known as Container Corporation of America funded a contest for colleges in the US to take part in an awareness program on the need to be more serious about how our activities affect the environment. A 23-year-old student of the University of Southern California Mr. Gary Anderson won the contest. His entry was the image that is now referred to as the universal symbol for recycling. 


While it is important that you need to know that the symbol isn’t actually a trademark, you also need to know that it has become globally accepted when used in referring to the term recycle or recycling even though there has been a lot of challenges to the use of the symbol. You can make use of the symbol in any way you choose to since it isn’t trademarked. This is the reason why there is a variation of the signs as each manufacturer has the right to make use of their own designs. 

In some countries, there are laws regulating the use of the symbol. There are different designs of the symbol today but the first-ever was done in the shape of arrowed triangles in an upside-down position. The most commonly used symbols today have the arrows wrapping over themselves, looking like a band with three half-twirls. 

The American Society of the Plastics Industry introduced the resin identification code in 1988. This was done in order to be able to identify the main plastic material that was used in manufacturing a package or product. By so doing, it became easy for recyclers to sort through recyclable and nonrecyclable materials. This wasn’t still enough to determine whether the product could be recycled industrially or domestically. 

The different resin codes used are signified by Unicode icons which includes (U+2673), (U+2674), (U+2675), (U+2676), (U+2677), (U+2678), (U+2679), and (U+267A). Recycle codes above the number 7 are used to represent non-plastic materials which include batteries, glass, paper, and metals of different kinds. 

Most Common Recycle Symbols on Plastic Products 

Like we mentioned earlier, the numbers inside of the recycle symbol are the major description factor to look out for in plastic bottles and containers. These numbers are labeled from number 1 to 7 and they each have different meanings. They are used mainly to provide information on the harmful chemicals that were used in the production of the plastic bottle or container. They also give information on the safety of the plastic and the decomposition nature of the plastic. 

With an understanding of what each number stands for, it becomes easier for you to select plastic materials and to determine which one is recyclable and not. For instance, water bottles with the number three or five on them cannot be recycled in most parts of the United States. Just so you know, here are the seven numbers used to classify plastics and what each of the stand for. 

Plastic Symbol Number “1” Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)

If you find the number “1” inside of a recycle triangle at the bottom of a plastic bottle, this indicates that the plastic is PET or PETE. You can easily spot this symbol when you look at the bottom of beer bottles and soft drinks. It can also be found on peanut butter bottles, food trays for oven, vegetable oil cans, mouthwash containers, and salad dressing. 

What this symbol means is that the plastic material used is lightweight, cheap, and easy to recycle. PET bottles are the best type of plastic material to produce bottles meant for single-use which is why they are commonly used for packing beverages. 

In most countries, these bottles are collected with the use of recycling programs to reduce the environmental pollution caused by the disposal of empty bottles. With these programs, PETE bottles can easily be recycled and used to make new containers, carpet, plastic bags, furniture, polar fleece, paneling, and straps. The recycling process involves the crushing and shredding of the plastic into small pieces before it is reprocessed for use in the manufacture of new products. 

PET bottles are considered safe as there is a low risk of leaching associated with their use. But it is important that you know that they have the tendency to support the accumulation of bacteria. This is why it is best you use them only once and then drop them off at the recycling plant or point. 

What is the Meaning of the Recycle Symbols

Plastic Symbol Number “2” High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is a type of hard plastic commonly used in the manufacture of oil bottles, milk jugs, and toys. They are also commonly recycled due to their extensive use in the industries. They are also safe to use and in addition, are one of the simplest and cost-effective plastic to recycle. This makes them a good plastic material to reuse in the manufacture of other components. 

They are harder compared to PET bottles and do not break down easily when exposed to extreme temperatures. This includes direct sunlight and continuous heating and cooling. This is why they are used industrially in making waste bins, picnic tables, park benches, plastic lumber, and bed liners for trucks. They are safe to use in manufacturing any plastic product that is durable and able to resist any weather condition. 

In the United States, only about 35% of plastic materials made from HDPE are recycled annually. 

Plastic Symbol Number “3” Vinyl (V or PVC)

If you find the number “3” inside the triangle at the bottom or side of any plastic container, then you should know that it is used to denote a vinyl plastic or PVC. These types of plastic material are the hardest to recycle and are most times not accepted by recycling plants and collection centers. PVC is used in making pipes, shampoo bottles, medical equipment, detergent bottles, cooking oil containers, and food packages. 

Vinyl plastic contains phthalates which can cause miscarriages and other developmental problems. It contains other compounds which can lead to loss of bone mass and liver problems. This is why it is strongly advised not to use this type of plastic in cooking or starting a fire. PVC can be recycled for use in making speed bumps, mats, flooring, cables, mud flaps, decks, paneling, and roadway gutters. 

What is the Meaning of the Recycle Symbols

Plastic Symbol Number “4” Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Low-Density polyethylene is a less toxic plastic material compared to the others mentioned in this post. This makes it safe to use them and as a result, they are not often recycled. LDPE is used in making squeezable bottles, dry cleaning wraps, grocery bags, bread packages, and also added in the manufacture of clothes and furniture. 

When this plastic is recycled, it is used in making plastic lumber, floor tiles, landscaping boards and liners for garbage cans. You can easily reuse LDPE plastic without worrying about the effect on your health or the environment. 

Plastic Symbol Number “5” Polypropylene (PP)

This type of plastic is made to be lightweight and strong. They are also highly resistant to heat which makes them a good material for making products that hold moistures, chemicals, and grease. Polypropylene is used in making yogurt packages, straws, rope, disposable diapers, margarine, pails, plastic bottle caps, and potato chip bags. 

It is safe to reuse this plastic and when recycled, PP is used to make brooms, trays, and battery cases. 

Plastic Symbol Number “6” Polystyrene (PS)

Polystyrene has a wide range of industrial applications. This is due to the fact that it is lightweight and can easily be forged on. They are also cheap and break up easily as a result of their weak structure. They are used in making egg cartons, disposable cups, plastic cutlery, and protective chips for shipping boxes. They are also used to make insulation and under sheets used to laminate the floors in home construction. 

However, polystyrene is considered unsafe as it contains styrene (a carcinogen) which could easily be leached into foods when used in microwaving. 

What is the Meaning of the Recycle Symbols

Plastic Symbol Number “7” Others (BPA, LEXAN, and Polycarbonate)

The number 7 is used on other plastics which could be polycarbonates, LEXAN or BPA (Bisphenol). There are concerns with using this plastic as it is believed that the chemicals can easily be leached into food or drink products. They are however used in making car parts, baby bottles, water cooler bottles, and sippy cups. To be on the safe side, it is best not to use plastic products with the number “7” symbol for heating in the microwave or for boiling. 

With the information provided above, you should have a better understanding of what the numbers inscribed at the bottom of a plastic bottle means. If you have any further questions or would like to make a contribution, feel free to do so in the comment section.