How to Recycle Plastics: Understanding Plastic Recycling Symbols

Plastic juice bottles, shampoo bottles, and yogurt tubs can all be recycled the same way, right? Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. When looking for how to recycle plastics, you’ll soon find that while these are all commonly recycled plastic items, they all have entirely different plastic recycling symbols.

If you’ve ever wondered how to recycle plastics in accordance with the plastic recycling symbols (1-7) located on the bottom of a plastic container, bottle, or other throwaway item, this guide is for you. These plastic recycling symbols and numbers are all codes that are part of the Resin Identification Code (RIC).

What is the RIC, and what does each plastic recycling symbol represent? Read on.

What is the Resin Identification Code (RIC)?

The Resin Identification Code (RIC) was developed in 1988 by the Plastics Industry Association. It was created for workers in the plastic and recycling industry to show them how to sort and recycle plastics more efficiently.

Each RIC corresponds to a specific type of resin used in a plastic product. When you learn how to recycle plastics according to a product’s RIC, the product is able to be properly recycled and have its value preserved. Twenty years after its creation, ASTM International, an international standards organization, took over the administration of the RIC.

The RIC only applies to plastic recycling symbols, not glass, paper, or any other recyclable materials.

Plastic Recycling Symbols (1-7)

There are seven plastic recycling symbols associated with RIC labels, with each of the seven numbers surrounded by three arrows forming a triangle. Every label refers to a different type of resin and gives business owners and consumers details on what kind of plastic the product is, and how to recycle plastics based off the plastic recycling number associated with it.

Label #1: PETE or PET

Type of plastic: Polyethylene terephthalate

Common items it applies to: This is the most commonly used plastic for single-use bottled drinks. You can typically find this plastic recycling symbol on soda bottles, water bottles, fruit juice bottles, cooking oil containers, and similar vessels.

How to recycle: Polyethylene terephthalate is usually accepted by most curbside recycling providers.

Label #2: HDPE

Type of plastic: High-density polyethylene

Common items it applies to: This type of plastic is commonly used in packaging. It includes shampoo bottles, household cleaner bottles, yogurt tubs, cereal box liners, and some shopping bags.

How to recycle: High-density polyethylene is often accepted by curbside recycling providers. However, some providers will only accept bottles, not liners or bags.

Label #3: PVC or V

Type of plastic: Polyvinyl chloride

Common items it applies to: This category includes fruit trays, bubble wrap, siding, and windows.

How to recycle: Polyvinyl chloride is typically not accepted by curbside recycling providers. It’s occasionally accepted by plastic lumber makers.

Label #4: LDPE

Type of plastic: Low-density polyethylene

Common items it applies to: This applies to plastic shopping bags, plastic bags for bread and frozen food, and dry cleaning plastic covers.

How to recycle: Unfortunately, low-density polyethylene isn’t accepted by most curbside programs. It can, however, be brought to store drop-off locations.

Label #5: PP

Type of plastic: Polypropylene

Common items it applies to: This category encompasses plastic in furniture, toys, car bumpers, as well as containers for hot liquids, such as syrup bottles.

How to recycle: Smaller polypropylene items, including bottles and toys, are sometimes accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Label #6: PS

Type of plastic: Polystyrene

Common items it applies to: Polystyrene is used to create rigid and foam products. The foam variation is more commonly known as styrofoam, which is used in disposable plates and takeout containers. The rigid variation of polystyrene is used in pill bottles and CD cases.

How to recycle: Some curbside providers will accept polystyrene items, but check your local recycling regulations before putting any of it out.

Label #7: Miscellaneous

Type of plastic: Other plastics like acrylic, nylon, and fiberglass

Common items it applies to: This is a miscellaneous category that applies to items like large water bottles, DVDs, and computer cases.

How to recycle: These items are usually not accepted by curbside providers in most locations.

Issues with the Resin Identification Code (RIC)

The RIC and plastic recycling symbols on packaging were initially created for people who work in the recycling and plastic industry, therefore they are not easily decipherable by those who don’t work in the recycling industry as they were not designed with businesses or consumers trying to figure out how to recycle plastics in mind.

The Sustainable Packaging Coalition is trying to push through a new plastic recycling code system that is more consumer-friendly. How2Recycle’s plastic recycling symbols are labels that have clear instructions on how to treat a specific item, instead of the complicated RIC numbered system.

The How2Recycle labels include any steps businesses or consumers wanting to find out how to recycle plastics and other materials must take before recycling an item (such as empty and replace cap), an icon that signifies one of four categories, and the type of material the object is made of. The four icons (and plastic recycling symbols) signify whether the item is widely recycled, has limited recycling options, is not yet recycled, or if it can be brought to a store drop-off center.

Because 91 percent of plastic products aren’t recycled, simpler plastic recycling symbols and numbers makes sense. In the meantime, business owners and consumers alike are encouraged to take the time to familiarize themselves with the RIC and do your research into how to recycle plastics, and what RIC labels your curbside provider accepts.

Ready to learn more about how to recycle plastics? Find out how your business can reduce and recycle plastic waste.


Meredith Leahy is a Waste Diversion Manager at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

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