recycling symbols tidyman

Demystifying Recycling Symbols — What Do They All Mean?

Have you ever put something in a recycling bin just because it had some recycling symbols on the packaging? 

Have you ever thought that you know the main symbols for recycling which turned out to be completely wrong (and you still can’t tell the difference)?

Do you want to learn how to recycle properly once and for all? 

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, this article is for you. 

The basics of recycling are simple — you clean the packaging, separate its different parts, and then put it in the right bin. But is that the right bin? What do the symbols mean? It’s a complicated mess that needs its own bachelor’s degree. Or so I thought.

In this article, we’ll go through all the recycling symbols, figure out their meaning, and try to explain them in simple terms we can understand. Let’s get started.

What Are Recycling Symbols?

Recycling symbols are visual signs on product packaging that help you determine if the packaging is recyclable and how you should dispose of it properly. They also play a big role in sorting and processing materials for efficient recycling. Thanks to these recycling codes, the industry can streamline its work and minimize contamination.

Then why did they make the signs so complicated? Currently, there are around 20–30 common recycling symbols. How many do you know? Because I can’t name more than 6. Hopefully, by the end of this article, we’ll both be able to tell them all apart. But first, let’s learn how the signs came to be and why they are so many.

History and Evolution

To a large extent, the environmental movement started in the 1970s with rising concerns over sustainability and waste management. With landfills filling up quickly and high waste disposal costs, it was time to come up with efficient solutions. 

And that’s when Gary Anderson designed the original recycling symbol — the famous Mobius loop. It quickly became the symbol of recycling worldwide. Along with it, more symbols appeared to indicate the materials used in a product. One example is the recycling symbols for plastic that contain numbers to point to the specific type of material. But more on them later. 

Nowadays, recycling signs have evolved to address the changes in the recycling process and our needs. For example, we now have a symbol for compostable materials. Also, the symbols are not universal. They vary across regions depending on the accepted standards and regulations.

Why It’s Important to Interpret Recycling Codes

Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of recycling signs, it’s good to know why you should be able to tell them apart. Here’s how interpreting the codes correctly can help the recycling process:

  • Proper Sorting: If you don’t know what those signs mean, you won’t be able to sort your waste properly. Proper sorting is crucial for effective waste management and prevents recyclable packaging from going to landfills. 
  • Recycling Contamination: If you put the wrong materials in recycling bins that leads to recycling contamination which is a whole topic in itself. But the gist is that recycling becomes much more challenging and costly. 
  • Conserving Resources: If you know what can be recycled, you’ll be able to contribute a lot more to resource conservation.
  • Protecting the Environment: By recycling properly, you’ll help reduce the negative impacts of waste on climate change and pollution. 
  • Being a Conscious Consumer: By knowing how to recognize the main recycling symbols, you’ll be able to make smart choices about your purchases. If you’re a nut-job like me, you’ll start checking out whether a product has recyclable packaging before you buy it.

To sum up, telling recycling codes apart will help you make better purchasing choices, conserve resources, protect the environment, and avoid unnecessary contamination. Now, let’s learn the basics to achieve all that.

variant of mobius loop

What Do Recycling Symbols Mean?

The meaning behind recycling symbols is whether products and materials can be recycled and how to dispose of them the right way. And while that sounds simple, there are quite a few of them we have to remember:

Universal Recycling Symbol (Mobius Loop)

mobius loop

The original recycling symbol consists of three arrows chasing each other in the form of a triangle. The arrows represent the three steps of the recycling process — collection of recyclable materials, manufacturing, and purchasing products from recycled materials. It signals that the product or its packaging is recyclable. While it’s not a guarantee that the material will be accepted at your local recycling program, it gives you a strong hint that you can recycle this item.

Glass Recycling Symbol

glass recycling symbol

The glass recycling symbol indicates that the item is made of glass and is recyclable. However, the symbol isn’t universal. It usually looks like the tidyman symbol — a figure throwing out a bottle into a bit, surrounded by the Morbius loop. But it can also look like a glass container (bottle or jar) within a circle or triangle and may include arrows to represent recycling. 

Plastic Recycling Symbols

Plastic recycling symbols are the most confusing ones since they include numbers, and we all feel math class PTSD when we see them. I’m joking, but it’s a valid explanation of why we all have a hard time remembering them.

And while we keep forgetting or ignoring them, we discard 2.5 million plastic bottles per hour.

Plastic symbols are visualized with recycling numbers enclosed within the Morbius loop. There are 7 common variations of these symbols:

recycling symbol 1 pete

1 — Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE): Yes, it can be recycled. It’s one of the most common types of plastic. PETE is a clear and lightweight plastic you’ll often find on beverage bottles, packaging, and food containers. 

hdpe 2 recycling symbol

2 — High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Yes, it can be recycled. You might see it on milk jugs, plastic bags, and detergent bottles. So, the good news is you can recycle laundry detergent bottles if you see this sign on them

recycling symbol 3 pvc

3 — Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): It can technically be recycled, but it’s much more challenging than the first two types. Also, you should specifically check with your local recycling facility whether they’ll accept PVC materials. You might see this sign on some packaging, pipes, and construction materials.

recycling number 4

4 — Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Yes, it can be recycled. This is flexible and lightweight plastic that’s often used for packaging, plastic bags, squeeze bottles, and shrink wrap.

recycling symbol 5

5 — Polypropylene (PP): Yes, it can be recycled. It’s a versatile type of plastic used in packaging, food containers, bottle caps, and even automotive parts. Keep in mind that some recycling facilities have specific guidelines on accepting PP.

recycling code 6 plastic

6 — Polystyrene (PS): Plastic 6 recycling is usually not accepted. You know this as styrofoam, which is quite challenging to recycle as it’s easily contaminated with food or other residue. Also, there’s not much demand for recycled styrofoam products, and the material is not economical enough for processing.

recycling number 7

7 — Other Plastics: Recycling plastic 7 is challenging. This symbol covers all types of plastic that don’t fit into the previously mentioned ones. Some of them are recyclable, while others aren’t. Note that not all recycling facilities accept or can process materials with this symbol.

To sum up, recycling plastic numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5 is generally ok. For all other types of plastic, you’ll have to check your local recycling facility. 

Paper Recycling Symbols

Unfortunately, there are no universal recycling signs for paper. Still, here are a few examples to help you understand what to look for:

  • Mobius loop with the word “Paper”
  • Recycling arrows forming a circle 
  • Numerical codes with PAP abbreviation — It signifies items made of cellulose fibers, which are biodegradable. Two examples include writing paper and leaflets. The numerical codes indicate the type of paper used, which is helpful during the sorting process at the recycling facility. 

Look for a similar sign on paper packaging and ensure the paper has no residue before putting it in the recycling bin. 

Metal Recycling Symbols

Recycling signs for metal are also not standardized. Look for a recycling symbol with the word “metal” or another image that might represent metal recycling. If you see an ALU abbreviation, that means the item is made from aluminum, which is highly recyclable. It’s best to check the local guideline for metal recycling.

Electronic Waste Recycling Symbols

Electronic waste is tricky to recycle as it has environmental and health impacts. The symbols for it may vary, but here are a few common ones to look out for:

  • Crossed-Out Wheelie Bin Symbol: It looks like a wheelie bin with a cross across it. This symbol indicates that you shouldn’t put that waste in the regular bin. Instead, you should recycle it via a designated e-waste program.
  • E-Waste Symbol: It looks like a plug or an electronic device with an arrow around it. 
  • WEEE Symbol: WEEE is an abbreviation for “Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment.” The symbol looks like a crossed-out trash bin with a line of small horizontal dashes below it.

Proper guidelines for electronic waste recycling symbols on packaging will vary depending on where you live, so it’s best to check with your local recycling facility.

compostable recycling symbol

Compostable Symbol

The compostable or biodegradable symbol looks like a seedling or plant sprout and represents the idea that the item can be transformed into nutrient-rich compost that supports plant growth. You might also notice text like “Compostable” or “Certified Compostable” on the packaging. 

Recyclable Packaging Symbol

The packaging recycling icon tells you whether the packaging material is recyclable. Again, there’s no universal symbol for it, but it can be displayed as a recycling bin or arrows forming a loop around a package. It might also include text like “Recyclable” or “Please Recycle.” Note that even if you see this symbol, the actual recyclability of the item would depend on the material it’s made of and other factors. 

Challenges and Limitations of Recycling Signs

Recycling signs are crucial for promoting recycling, but they’re not without faults. They’re confusing to most people, making the case for mandatory recycling a tough one.

While it’s important to tell recycling signs apart, it’s equally crucial to discuss their challenges and limitations, including:

  • Lack of Standardization: Recycling symbols are not universal. They vary depending on the country and specific recycling programs, which makes it very confusing for eco-conscious individuals who want to follow the guidelines. 
  • Limited Awareness and Understanding: Many people recycle without a basic understanding of the symbols and their variants. This leads to improper recycling or contamination, which diminishes recycling efforts.
  • Material-Specific Considerations: The packaging symbols don’t always provide comprehensive information on the recyclability of specific materials. For example, some plastics have limited recyclability, which isn’t stated on the packaging.
  • Constantly Evolving Packaging and Materials: New materials and product designs appear every day, making the job of recycling symbols incredibly difficult. Multi-layered packaging or composite materials might not yet have appropriate signs to indicate their recyclability. 

The best we can do about these challenges is to keep educating ourselves on the latest guidelines and advocate for consistent and universal signs we can all follow. One such great initiative is How2Recycle — a standardized labeling system with clear and simple signs that anyone can understand.


What does the recycling symbol mean?

The recycling symbol (Mobius loop) means that the item or packaging is potentially recyclable. Still, that may vary depending on your local recycling facility and program.

How to know if something is recyclable?

Check for recycling symbols on the packaging. The first thing to look for is the Mobius loop — three arrows chasing each other in the form of a triangle. Read all about the main recycling symbols above. 

What does the number in the recycle symbol mean?

The number in the recycle symbol indicates the specific types of material used in the item. That helps with sorting and recycling processes. 

Which plastics can be recycled?

Plastics that can generally be recycled have a numerical value of 1, 2, 4, or 5. 

Is 5 plastic recyclable?

Yes, plastic with the recycling symbol 5 is generally recyclable. Still, that may vary depending on your local facility. 

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