Guide To Plastic Recycling Numbers: What Do All These Codes Mean?

Have you ever noticed the symbols and recycling codes on plastic products? Do you know what they mean? 

I must admit, I don’t! Well at least I didn’t until I started researching fully for this blog.

We all recognise the recycling triangle symbol (♻), but what about all the other numbers?

These are called plastic recycling numbers or Resin Identification Codes (RIC).

These numbers range from 1 to 7 and are used on plastic products to indicate the plastic material used to make that product. Although most of us don’t pay much attention to these symbols and codes, they help identify what type of plastic is recyclable and what isn’t.

Read on to know more about these codes and what plastic-type they indicate. 

The History of Plastic Resin Codes

plastic recycling codes and resin identification numbers

Plastic resin codes were created in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry, now known as Plastic Industry Association (PLASTICS), to provide a standardised categorisation of the materials used in various plastic products. 

It’s much easier to recycle or dispose of plastic objects marked with an identification number telling us what type of resin they’re made from.

Plastic Recycling Symbols 1 – 7

Each recycling triangle has a number in the middle from 1 to 7.

Let’s discuss each of these codes and symbols in more detail.

1. PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

plastic bottle hand wash with resin code 4

Plastic recycling code number 1 is for Polyethylene Terephthalate or PETE.

This resin code is usually found on plastic water bottles, soft drink bottles, cooking oil containers, mouthwash bottles and hand wash bottles (like above).

The plastic is usually lightweight, clear, inexpensive and can withstand high temperatures and hot liquids. Thankfully, it’s also easily recyclable.

However, PETE is a type of single-use plastic, which isn’t good for the environment. So it’s better to avoid PETE whenever possible and opt for more environmentally friendly options. A good option here is reusable bottles and more sustainable glass jars.

2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE, or High-Density Polyethylene, can be used for all sorts of things including bottles of laundry detergent, house hold cleaner, milk bottles, juice and laundry detergent – this is why opting for an eco friendly laundry detergent sheet is a good idea. 

Most curbside recycling programmes accept this type of plastic, which can be recycled into a wide variety of products. 

HDPE is strong, durable and can withstand bleach and other corrosive chemicals.

Also, it can be produced with previously recycled materials. Some of the products that can be made from it are toys, flower pots, traffic cones and bins.

plastic bottle with resin code 2
Organic plant food I use in a HDPE plastic code 2 bottle

3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) is a non-recyclable plastic mostly found in cooking oil bottles, cling films, bubble wraps and cheap detergent bottles. 

Since it’s lightweight and can be shaped into any form, it’s widely used for a variety of commercial purposes, including PVC pipes and foam boards.

PVC is generally considered the most hazardous type because it produces harmful chemicals such as vinyl chloride when breaking down. Most curbside recycling programs do not accept PVC, which means it ends up in the general waste bin. Still it’s a good idea to check with your local authority.

4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

cafedirect coffee bag ldpe 4 plastic resin
LDPE plastic 4 coffee bag from Cafedirect

LDPE, or Low-density Polyethylene, is acid-resistant, flexible and transparent, which is why it is frequently used to make films. 

Some products created using LDPE are toys, container lids, rubbish bags and even ground coffee bags – see here from Cafedirect and Balance Coffee. It can also be recycled to make floor tiles, furniture and bins.

At the end of life, it’s hard to recycle code 4 LDPE the usual way. The soft material gets caught in the recycling machine, causing issues in the machinery. 

5. PP (Polypropylene)

PP, or Polypropylene, is strong, lightweight and has grease, moisture, chemical and heat-resistant properties. 

Do you know that thin plastic bag that’s inside your cereal box? That’s polypropylene. The thin covering keeps the cereal dry and air tight. 

It’s also used in plastic bottle tops, disposable nappies, yogurt containers, straws, packing tape, packets of crisps, and much more still. 

PP is considered quite safe to reuse, for example yoghurt pots, but it’s not widely recycled. I know I can’t recycled PP code 5 plastic in my area. You can check if you can here.

6. PS (Polystyrene)

PS or Polystyrene is found mostly in single-use products made up of polystyrene. Some of these products include takeaway food containers, meat trays, styrofoam cups and molded packaging. 

Polystyrene is most commonly known in its expanded form, which is used in the production of food packaging materials. It’s also used to manufacture rigid food containers, including yogurt containers, disposable tableware, Petri dishes, CD cases and disposable razors.

As this material can be easily contaminated by food residue, it’s not really reusable.

This resinc code 6 plastic is generally non-recyclable because it releases hazardous chemicals while breaking down, posing a threat to the environment. You can read the blog on if polystyrene can be recycled here.

7. Other Plastics

plastic 7 pla compostable

Group number 7 of the plastic recycling codes rounds up everything that doesn’t fit into any preceding of the 6 categories. 

In this category you get a mix of plastics with a variety of resin and chemical compounds. They are usually found in nylon, bioplastics, fiberglass and composite plastics. You can read more about the types and uses of bioplastics here.

Currently, a new form of compostable plastics is being widely used to replace polycarbonates. It’s made up of bio-based polymers such as corn starch and potato starch, such as my food waste compost bin liners.

These compostable materials have PLA (which stands for polylactic acid) or compostable written at the bottom along with the recycling symbol – see the image above of a coffee cup lid.

Plastics in this category may contain BPA and aren’t safe to reuse unless they have the PLA compostable coding. Due to the non-recyclability of PLA, they should be disposed of in an industrial composter instead, which gives something useful back to the Earth.

Wrap up on plastic recycling codes

It’s useful to have a good understanding of what the various plastic resin codes mean. 

When it comes to purchasing products, we must be aware of the impact they have on us and the environment. Being aware of the type and whether it’s recyclable or reusable can help you contribute to a more sustainable way of life. 

Not all plastic can be recycled, so we need to make an effort to reduce our reliance on plastic, which will then reduce the carbon impact we have on an individual level. 

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Ben & Murphy Peaks Mam Tor

I’m the Creator and Editor of Tiny Eco Home Life. I write and publish information about living a more sustainable, environmentally friendly life. Away from the laptop, I love spending time in nature and with my young family (plus Murphy the dog!). I write and send out the Eco Life Newsletter.