Plastic Recycling Symbols Explained
To create an effective waste management program for your workplace, you need to know how to deal with different types of plastic.
So much of what we purchase is made from some form of plastic, from water bottles and food containers to packaging materials. As a result, plastic waste in the workplace has become a global problem, clogging up sewer systems, killing marine life and polluting our soils.
The problem has become a core issue in the climate crisis. In fact, across the pond in the UK, it’s estimated that around five million ton of plastic are used every year. So much of the plastic we produce can be repurposed to minimize waste, yet much of it is never recycled.
One of the reasons for this is that people don’t understand the symbols used to denote whether an item can be recycled and how best to dispose of it. This guide covers the different symbols used for plastic materials, what they mean, and how your business can use them to improve its waste management program.
What Are Plastic Resin Identification Codes?
The Resin Identification Codes were developed in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) to group plastics into categories in order to provide manufacturing and reprocessing consistency for different types of rigid plastics. They’re the numbers you’ll see on the bottom of plastic packaging.
The Resin Identification Codes 1 to 6 indicate the type of plastic, such as PET plastic bottles or high-density polyethylene, while 7 means the packaging is made from a mix of plastics or a type of plastic not categorized by the previous six categories. This category can include anything from composite plastics, such as those used for potato chip wrappers, to polycarbonates that contain BPA.
Resin codes aren’t actually related to the recyclability of plastics from a consumer perspective (this is where symbols come in) but they are necessary for the behind-the-scenes of recycling. It’s for this reason that the codes shouldn’t necessarily be used as the only identifier for knowing what to recycle and how.
You may want to check with your local waste center to see what types of materials are collected where your business is located, so you can be certain it can be disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.
What Are the Challenges of Plastic Recycling?
Despite the value of plastics, most plastic materials that are disposed of are either incinerated or end up in landfills. Understanding the symbols and codes on plastic products is the key to making better use of such a valuable resource.
Knowing how to treat plastics at the end of their life can also improve recycling. For example, rinsing containers before tossing them in the recycling bin. This is something that waste management company Countrystyle Recycling confirms, stating that “food waste in recycling is one of the most common issues surrounding recycling. Not only does it contaminate the entire load, because it can lead to it being classed as general waste which is a more expensive waste stream, but it undoes the hard work of others.”
It’s also important to remember that plastic is a collective name for many forms of material. So another roadblock to better recycling practices in the workplace is the need for collection sites and systems to recycle all plastics, not just rigid plastics like PET.
Businesses should also be prioritizing a move away from plastics that can’t be recycled, which will make it easier for all personnel to do their part when disposing of waste materials.
(Find out How to Safely Dispose of Office Trash)
What Are the Symbols for Recycling Plastics?
The “chasing arrows” symbol is associated with recycling, but the symbol doesn’t necessarily mean that an item can be recycled. It is, however, a critical piece of information. The number inside the triangle is used to identify the type of plastic, and by understanding the type of plastic, we can determine how best to dispose of the product.
Here’s a rundown of each of the numbers you may find pressed into plastic products and what they mean.
Polyethylene Terephthalate refers to rigid plastics that are naturally completely clear, like glass. These plastics are used for salad trays, food containers, and flexible films.
High Density Polyethylene is rigid plastic with a naturally milky color. It’s often used for plastic milk containers, bottles of bleach, shampoo bottles, and household cleaners.
Polyvinyl Chloride is a soft, flexible plastic that is naturally clear and primarily used for blister packaging for medications and tablets. Aside from packaging, it can be used for thermal insulation, car parts, and window or door frames.
Low Density Polyethylene is a very flexible form of plastic used for shopping bags, thin films or tubes, along with other products or packaging materials that need to be flexible. Like HDPE, it has a milky color.
Polypropylene is a rigid plastic typically used for bottles, pots, microwavable meal trays, and plastic straws. While cloudy, it is clearer than HDPE or LDPE.
Polystyrene is a brittle form of plastic that is incredibly lightweight and typically used for disposable cutlery, cups, and fast food containers, as well as packaging materials for electronics and toys.
This is a catch-all category for plastics that don’t fall into any of the other categories, including mixed or composite plastics. Plastics that fall into this category can have many different uses or applications.
Which Plastics Can Businesses Recycle?
While all plastics can be recycled, not all of them are recycled on a large scale. Generally speaking:
- Resin Codes 1, 2, and 5 are widely recyclable (at least 75% of local authorities collect them), so they can be repurposed into other forms of packaging easily
- Codes 3, 6, and 7 may be recycled at certain facilities, so it will depend on where you’re based
- Code 4 (LDPE) can be recycled but it’s not usually collected by local authorities (commercial or industrial films, however, are recyclable)
Aside from the chasing arrows symbol, you may come across some other symbols that indicate how to dispose of the plastic packaging. For example, the circular arrow with a green background will explicitly state if you can recycle the item, while "Recycle | Rinse" is for certain food items that need to be cleaned before recycling.
Plastic is everywhere in the workplace, from the food employees eat to the products and equipment bought to facilitate operations and the very bags we put trash into. It’s difficult to avoid plastic but recycling can help minimize the impact it has on the environment. However, it’s important to note that there are still limitations that go beyond our control.
More needs to be done to improve the infrastructure for collecting and recycling plastic materials – and as soon as these systems are in place, it will be easier for businesses to recycle items properly. But the more you know about recycling the better – and while it may seem confusing at first, once your employees have a good understanding of how it works, it’s an easy habit to get into.