Wednesday 30 October 2019

Recycling Codes Explained

Are Recycling Codes in Plastic Packaging Confusing?

I have been recycling for years, since way back when you had to drive to the nearest recycling point, long before curbside collections became a common sight. I always thought I was doing the right thing but even now I keep discovering new things that I didn’t know.

I recently learned for example, that tetrapaks are not recycled by our local council. I examined the laminated card sent out by the council and realised that no cartons were on the diagram. A quick email later confirmed that no, they don’t take tetrapaks or any other cartons at all.

Tetrapaks are a mix of plastics, aluminium and card stock which is why only specialist collectors will take them. Some councils may send them off to these specialist centres (my mother’s council does take tetrapaks for example), however ours don’t so we have to take them to a home recycling centre where they can be picked up from there. 

Bell Peppers in a Miniature Shopping Trolley
Plastic Free Veg!

This excellent BBC article ‘Why plastic recycling is so confusing’ shows that councils can differ across the UK in which items are taken for recycling. They say that whilst some councils will collect most types of plastic packaging, two councils (at the time of writing) collect none at all (Rotherham and Tonbridge).

99% of households have their detergent, shampoo bottles, milk and drink bottles collected whilst only 74% of households have their tubs, tray and yogurt pots collected. Carrier bags are at 18% and cling film and food bags only around the 10% mark.

Terracycle are a great resource for finding local drop offs for some of the more difficult to recycle items such as cat food pouches and crisp packets. See my article for more information. 

How to Recycle

Recycling can be quite an effort depending on where you are but still worth it, as long as you can work out what can be recycled (check with your local council if you are unsure, many have recycling cards delivered to each household, plus they often have guides online or an FAQ section – if not send them a quick email with any questions).

Recycle Now has some tips on recycling plastic bottles:

* Replace lids and tops. If they stay on the container they will get recycled [worth checking with your council though, as our local council prefers caps to be removed first]. 

* Empty and rinse bottles as left over foods or liquids can contaminate other recyclables. Bottles containing liquid may not be recycled, as can be too heavy for the automated sorting process. Liquid can also damage the machinery.

Squash bottles to save space and leave on labels as these will be removed in the process.

Plastic Recycling Symbols Guide

To help us figure out what’s what when we recycle here’s a mini guide.

This article will cover just plastic recycling codes, compostable and bio-degradeable products I will cover in a future article..

Circular Green Dot Symbol Green Dot – 2 circular arrows, sometimes green, sometimes black - this is probably the symbol that causes the most confusion. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is recyclable, but more that the manufacturer contributes financially to remove or recycle packaging in Europe. Per Wikipedia ‘The Green Dot logo merely indicates that a company has joined the Green Dot scheme, and not necessarily that the package is fully recyclable.’

Triangular Mobius Loop Recycling Symbol Mobius Loop – The 3 chasing triangular arrows - this means it IS capable of being recycled but may depend on local facilities. If there is a percentage figure in the middle it may mean x % has been made from recycled materials.

Widely Recycled Packaging Symbol A Single Circular Arrow may say ‘Widely Recycled’ in green, or ‘Check Local Kerbside' (recyclable at household recycling centres but may need to check whether it's picked up by council kerbside collection, Tetrapaks for example). 

Or you may see 'Recycle with Bags at Larger Stores'. These include kitchen/loo roll wraps and bread bags. The bags can block recycling centre conveyor belts so best sorted with carrier bags in the supermarket bag collection bin. 

Recycle Now site lists types of bags you can recycle (note biodegradeable/compostable bags are not accepted). You can also drop your bubble wrap at bag recycling places too.
Widely Recycled Packaging Symbol Not Recycled Symbol - The symbol may say ‘Not Yet Recycled’ in black (such as found on crisp packets).

Plastic Resin Code Recycling Symbol Plastic Resin Codes – The resin code number inside the triangles can help workers at the recycling centre sort types of plastic (although they usually go by eye depending on type of container). Some recycling centres have machines that can scan the codes also to separate the recyclables from the non recyclables.

Resin Codes Explained

The numbered codes can be broken down as follows (
some plastics are much more readily recycled than others) 

1 – PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate, also known as Polyester). The most commonly recycled product. Usually clear plastic for making water and soft drinks bottles. It withstands heat and can be used also in microwavable meal trays.

When recycled it can be turned into fleece jackets, carpet fibre, tote bags, plastic sheeting or turned back into bottles. 

The new kid on the block rPET is made using recycled plastic bottles.

2 – HDPE (High Density Polyethylene). Transulcent bottles which are ideal for short shelf life such as milk. Also used for chemicals including wash detergents and bleach. Can be used for shampoo bottles or cereal box liners. It can be made relatively stiff with high strength so also suitable for making cable covers.

In recycled form it can be used to make more detergent, shampoo bottles etc or used for making outdoor decking, fencing and recycled plastic picnic tables. Also flower pots, pipes, buckets and recycling bins.

3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, also known as Vinyl). Can be rigid or flexible and has good weather and chemical resistance. Often used for double glazed window frames. Can be used as shrink wrap or meat wraps, blood bags, medical tubing, pipes, fencing, decking, flooring and cable insulation.

Recycled materials can be used for fencing, floor tiles, cassette cases, traffic cones, gutters, garden hoses, sheeting and loose leaf binders.

4- LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene). Tough, flexible and relatively clear. Useful for flexible lids, toys, squeezy bottles and cables. Can be used in dry cleaning bags or bread bags, or packaging on frozen foods or fresh produce. Plus household bin bags. Coatings on coffee cups or paper milk cartons.

Recycled it can be used in shipping envelopes, floor tiles, compost bins, outdoor wood alternatives and bin liners.

5- PP (Polypropylene). Strong with high melting point so good for hot beverages. Also moulded parts for automotives. Useful for yogurt pots, margarine tubs and takeout food trays. Plus medicine bottles and bottle tops/caps and carpeting.

Recycled materials can be used for car batteries, brooms and brushes, garden rakes, storage bins, shipping pallets and trays.

6 – PS (Polystyrene). Can be rigid or foam with low melting point. Useful for food containers eg meat trays plus disposable cups, compact disc cases and aspirin bottles. Also as foam packaging for electrical products and also used in toys, building insulation and coat hangers.

Recycled it can be used for insulation, thermometers, light switch plates, vents, rulers, video cassette cases, egg shell cartons or expandable polystyrene (EPS) foam packaging.

7- Other. Can be made from different materials to the above or made from multiple layered resins.

Recycled items can be made into large bottles or plastic wood alternatives such as decking. 


According to the BBC article on plastics, resin codes 1, 2 and 5 are the most commonly recycled materials, resin code 4 sometimes recycled and 3, 6 and 7 almost never. Clear bottles are the most easily recycled and attract the best prices. Coloured plastics are less desirable and polystyrene is rarely recycled.

For a more detailed breakdown of each code check out this useful guide: Plastic Resin Codes PDF by the American Chemistry Council.

Recycling does seem to be an art form but it is great to see more and more products now being recycled and it’s even better to see products more widely available, utilising post consumer recycled plastics, on supermarket shelves. 

It's also good to see a British company using electricity generated from burning landfill waste to help power a recycling sorting centre. See our Lovelier Planet News post for more!