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Understanding Recycled Plastics – The Recycling Symbols and Numbers


Plastic is a substance which is becoming more and more common in our society each day. It is inexpensive to produce, easy to mold into virtually any form, can be hard or soft and offers an impressive lifespan. While plastic offers many benefits it is our inability as a society to effectively recycle plastic combined with its high environmental cost that make it so dangerous.

I Thought We Recycled All Our Used Plastic

While the annual plastic resin production in the United States has been on the rise since the 1970s, in the past 20 years plastic production has doubled, only 3 to 5 percent of plastics are actually recycled. According to a recent best Life Magazine article, we can expect yearly plastic resin production in the United States to reach 120 billion lbs by 2010.

The Problem With Recycling Plastic

While there are seven different types, one being “other,” of plastic that are commonly used – only two have much of a secondary life. At least PET, commonly used in soda bottles, and HDPE, commonly used in milk jugs, offer some sort of real recyclable value.

Doesn’t Plastic Eventually Biodegrade?

The short answer is – “No.” Unlike many other materials plastic does not biodegrade – instead it photodegrades. When plastic photodegrades it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic instead of splitting into simpler compounds. In our oceans the small bits of plastic created through photodegradation are actually called mermaid tears or nurdles.

Managing our Plastic Addiction

With new plastic being churned out at an estimated rate of 328 million lbs a day by 2010 – it seems like an overwhelming addiction. How do we manage this addiction? By reducing our usage of plastic and by recycling and reusing the plastic we already have. As consumers we can actively chose products in paper and glass packaging and we can choose not to purchase over-packaged items – this in turn will force manufacturers to make changes.

Understanding Recycling Symbols

Recycling symbols can be separated into two groups; “recycled” and “recyclable.” The use of “recycled” and “recyclable” are both governed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC provides guidelines for their use in the document “Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.”

While the FTC governs these standards in the United States, on an international level the standards are defined in the ISO 14021: Environmental Labels and Declarations-Self-declared Environmental Claims. You can find the ISO standard here:

Plastic recycling symbols were originally created in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). Like the FTC and ISO, SPI provides a guide for proper usage of the symbols.

  • [http://www.plasticsindustry.org/outreach/recycling/2124.htm]

In January 1995, thirty-nine US states adopted legislation requiring the use of the SPI number codes.

Recycled Plastic Symbols and Numbers

Plastic items that have been recycled will bear the recycled symbol on them. The symbol should be as close to the bottom center of the product as possible. Inside the symbol you should find a number which indicates what type of plastic it is. The following is a list of numbers and the types of plastic they indicate:

  1. PET/PETE or Polyethylene Terephthalate. PET is a “thermoplastic polymer resin” and is commonly used in synthetic fibers, beverage, food and other liquid containers. PET is also used in both thermoforming applications and engineering resins often in combination with glass fiber. It is considered by some to be “one of the most important raw materials used in man-made fibers.”
  2. HDPE or High-density Polyethylene. HDPE is a “polyethylene thermoplastic” made from petroleum. It takes 1.75 kilograms of petroleum in energy and raw materials to make one kilogram of HDPE. With peak petroleum production a reality in our lifetimes should we still be manufacturing new HDPE? Milk jugs are commonly made out of HDPE.
  3. PVC/V Poly or Polyvinyl Chloride. PVC is a “thermoplastic polymer” and while it is traditionally thought of as a hard plastic it can be made softer and more flexible. PVC is widely used in construction as it is cheap, durable and easy to assemble. In the hard form PVC is used as vinyl siding, magnetic stripe cards, window profiles, records, pipe, plumbing and conduit fixtures. In soft form it is used in both clothing and upholstery Soft PVC can also be used to make flexible hoses and tubing, flooring, roofing membranes, and electrical cable insulation.
  4. LDPE – Low-density Polyethylene. LDPE is a “thermoplastic” made from oil. Similar to HDPE in our current environmental climate should we still be manufacturing new LDPE? LDPE is most commonly used for manufacturing containers. LDPE is used in dispensing bottles, wash bottles, tubing, plastic bags for computer components, and various molded laboratory equipment. The most common use of LDPE is plastic bags.
  5. PP – Polypropylene. PP is a “thermoplastic polymer” which is commonly used in packaging, textiles, stationery, plastic parts, lab equipment and loudspeakers . PP is also found in automotive components and polymer banknotes.
  6. PS – Polystyrene. PS is an “thermoplastic” made from petroleum. In this way, PS is very similar to both HDTP and LDPE. While solid at room temperature PS, when heated PS melts only to return solid again once it cools. It’s this quality that makes it attractive for a variety of uses such as producing plastic model assembly kits, license plate frames, plastic cutlery, food containers and jewel cases for CDs.
  7. Other. Which means the product is made up of plastic resins that are not in the initial six or is some unique combination of the initial six.

Recyclable Symbol

A plastic item that carries a recyclable symbol indicates it is recyclable. The more you properly recycle, the less waste that will end up in our landfills and oceans. Please properly recycle all plastic of this type.

Does Any Symbol Ensure Human Health?

While theses symbols allow you to quickly identify what type of plastic you are dealing with, and they also let you know if you can recycle it – they don’t cover any human health concerns.

For example, let’s consider PS or Polystrene which is used for human food containers and cutlery. What is the health effect for humans when the PS food containers leach chemicals into the food they are carrying through heat exchange? According to the EPA, “Acute (short-term) exposure to styrene in humans results in mucous membrane and eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic (long-term) exposure to styrene in humans results in effects on the central nervous system (CNS), such as headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression, CSN dysfunction, hearing loss, and peripheral neuropathy. Human studies are inconclusive on the reproductive and developmental effects of styrene; several studies did not report an increase in developmental effects in women who worked in the plastics industry, while an increased frequency of spontaneous abortions and decreased frequency of births were reported in another study. Several epidemiologic studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma. However, the evidence is inconclusive due to confounding factors. EPA has not given a formal carcinogen classification to styrene.”

Are All Plastics Bad?

While there is room for plastic in our world there isn’t room for our present plastic addiction. We are burning through natural resources, creating incredible waste and all the time neglecting to even properly recycle the plastic we’ve already created. Plastic isn’t our only option, depending upon the application, glass is a much greener alternative.

Working together we can actively reduce our plastic consumption and improve our recycling rates. Why waste our valuable natural resources on petroleum based plastics when we can recycle? We created this addiction to plastic together, and we need to work together to free ourselves from it. Remember by reducing, reusing and recycling you are doing your part to fight global warming.


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