Recycling symbols on plastics explained

  • Consumers can now expect to see accurate green claims when shopping in Asos, Boohoo and Asda
  • If all plastic were recycled, it would save between 30-150 million tonnes of CO2 each year
  • Not all plastics can be recycled and around only 9% of that waste plastic is recycled and 12% is incinerated
  • Over 400 million tonnes of plastic is produced every year globally
  • Some plastic can be thrown into your at-home recycling bin, others need to go to designated collection points

Recycling is a highly effective way to reduce your environmental impact. Most of the time it is free, and to remove and dispose of larger items there is often only a small charge. 

The challenge for most is knowing how each product should be disposed of. This is where recycling symbols – which are on the back of a packet/product – come in handy, as they explain how to dispose of them. 

We’ve highlighted what each of these symbols mean in more detail and where they can be recycled. 

Plastic bottles and containers in a pile for recycling

Simpler bin collections for England to boost recycling

Recycling minister, Robbie Moore, announced today (9 May) announced new, simpler bin collections to help boost recycling rates for England. 

The new recycling collections will see the same materials collected from homes, workplaces and schools. Councils will now be allowed to collect plastic, metal, glass, paper and card in one bin in all circumstances. Food and garden waste will also be allowed to be co-collected. 

These new rules aim to reduce confusion over what items can be recycled, as people will no longer have to check what their specific council will accept for recycling. It will also reduce complexity for councils and other waste collectors. 

In addition, the government is supporting more frequent and comprehensive bin collections. A minimum backstop means councils will be expected to collect black bin waste at least fortnightly, alongside weekly food waste collections. 

Moore said of the updates: “We all want to do our bit to increase recycling and reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill – but a patchwork of different bin collections across England means it can be hard to know what your council will accept. 

“Our plans for Simpler Recycling will end that confusion: ensure that the same set of materials will be collected regardless of where you live.” 

While the plan applies to all homes in England, including flats, it’s important to know and understand what the various recycling symbols mean. 

Meaning of recycled plastic symbols: resin codes

Recycling is a complicated process, and it’s far from perfect. Currently, only 9% of that waste plastic is recycled and 12% is incinerated. The remaining 79%, according to the Plastic Soup Foundation, ends up in landfill or in the environment. 

Plastic does not decompose, which is why it’s important to understand what can be recycled and how to do it properly. There are seven different types of recyclable plastics, which are: 

  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET OR PETE)
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Polyvinyl chloride or vinyl (PVC or V)
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polystyrene (PS) 
  • Miscellaneous plastics

If you’re not familiar with the standard recycling symbol on products it’s a triangle made up of arrows going in a clockwise direction. It appears on plastic containers and products, and seeing it usually means they are recyclable. 

These symbols will also feature a number between one and seven inside, which indicates both the type of plastic and how to dispose of it properly.

Remember: Some plastic can be thrown into your at-home recycling bin, while others will need to be taken to other collection points. Bags for life, for example, can only be recycled at certain collection points, like supermarkets. And not all plastics will be recyclable, like bin lines or some crisp packets. 
Infographic depicting 7 different plastic recycling symbols with explanations of what they mean underneath each one


Number ‘1’ on the recycling symbol means a product’s plastic is made mostly of PET or PETE. PET is one of the most-common types of plastic, with more than 500 billion bottles made per year. According to a survey run by Business Waste, only 60% of PET plastic bottles are recycled. 

PET plastic is generally used for packaging foods and drinks, including cola & carbonates, juices and water. Medicine and cooking oils also use PET plastic. 

PET is recycled in almost all UK local authorities and designated recycling points. The councils who don’t collect PET are usually able to transfer it to a different recycling centre. 

You can find your nearest recycling facility through the Recycle Now website


Number ‘2’ shows a product’s plastic is made from HDPE plastic, which is almost as common as PET. 

The versatile plastic has a slightly opaque appearance and is used for milk, shampoo and laundry detergent bottles. HDPE plastic is also used for food containers, reusable plastic cups, plates and bowls. 

HDPE plastic can be placed in most household recycling bins, as it’s widely collected by local authorities. You can also use recycling drop off points. 

PVC or V

Number ‘3’ on a product means it’s made from PVC, which is also referred to as ‘V’ by experts. Window frames, pipes and some flooring, as well as medical equipment, like fluid bags and blister packs for tablets all use PVC plastic.  

Domestic recycling for PVC is quite limited, and many local authorities won’t recycle it if thrown away at home. This is because PVC is often used commercially and is not readily available for individual households. 

If you’re currently undergoing a house renovation or plan to, remember to ask our renovators or installers to dispose of any PVC products.


Number ‘4’ refers to LDPE plastic. This is often used on bags for life, sandwich bags and cling film. Some water pipes, hoses and electric wire coatings also use LDPE plastic. 

LDPE products are fully recyclable, but the majority of local authorities won’t take them when collecting from homes. Therefore, you’ll need to take it to a drop off point. Most local supermarkets accept used plastic bags and sandwich bags, too. 

If you’re having your pipes changed professionally, most businesses will remove these for you. 


Number ‘5’ is for PP plastic, which is both very common and opaque. It’s often used for bottle lids, caps and hard food containers, like yoghurt pots. 

Plastic toys also use PP plastic to help build its endurance to avoid early breakages. 

A common myth, according to recycling company, Recycling Bins is that bottle lids can’t be recycled. This isn’t the case, however. 

During the recycling process, both plastic bottles and lids are ground up and put through a water bath. As lids are made from PP plastic, they tend to float, whereas bottles will sink as PET plastic is heavier. 

Some companies have updated their packaging to make it easier for customers to recycle. Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (owners of Coca-Cola, Fanta, Sprite and Monster), for example, now attach all lids to their bottles to ensure they are recycled together.

Some milk companies have also switched out their coloured-lids for plain ones to make them easier to recycle also. 

Woman putting plastic bottle in recycling bin


PS is represented by the number ‘6’ on the recycling symbol. This soft, flexible plastic is often used to make foam packaging, disposable plates and cups, packaging trays for meat, and disposable containers for takeaway food. 

This plastic is incredibly hard to recycle and there are very few options to do so in the UK. There are some types of plastic that can be taken to your local recycling centre. 

Flooring, wall insulation and car seating can be disposed of at these centres, but check your local authorities website if you can before travelling. 


Finally, the number ‘7’ is for any plastics that fall out of the six we’ve already mentioned. The plastics that fall into this category are acrylic plastic, nylon, polycarbonate plastic, and polyactic acid (PLA), which is a biodegradable plastic made from plants. 

In layman’s terms, these plastics are used on DVDs, CDs, sunglasses, crisp packets, some plastic trays and cutlery and nylon tights. 

Unfortunately, these plastics can’t be recycled at home or using drop-off points, except crisp packets. Crisp packets, according to Recycle Now, can be recycled along with plastic bags or via Terracycle’s Crisp Packet Recycling Scheme. 

As PLA plastic is biodegradable, you should be able to place these products in your compost bin. This also means your local council might collect these from home. 

It’s difficult to determine exactly how much category ‘7’ gets recycled, since it covers such a wide variety of plastics and items. But it’s safe to assume that most ends up as general waste because it’s so difficult to recycle these products. 

For DVDs and CDs, given they are in good condition, you are able to sell them to third party sites or Facebook Marketplace, Vinted, etc or simply donate them.

On-pack recycling label (OPRL) meanings

In addition to the logos identifying the types of plastic used, there will also be symbols on-pack identifying whether they can or can’t be recycled. 

The recycle symbol is applied to packaging that can be widely recycled, including at-home, while the don’t recycle symbol means the packaging can’t be. Ultimately, these products can’t be correctly sorted and recycled into new packaging. 

Next is the recycle rinse packaging. This means that contained food in the product will need rinsing. If it isn’t, the residue could contaminate other materials when collected together. 

If you see the recycle lid on the recycling symbol, it means they’re too small to be recycled on their own.

According to Recycle More, any caps and lids that fall under 40mm in diameter are too small to be sorted correctly at recycling plants. If you see this symbol, make sure the cap or life is put back on the bottle to ensure it’s recycled. 

The final three symbols are recycling with bags at large supermarkets, recycle, bottle cap on and don’t recycle, remove sleeve.

The final two means you might need to separate packaging before it can be recycled. It’s usually used on products where a sleeve or film has been used. 

The new ‘green claims’ and what they mean for you 

Most retail stores are focusing on highlighting its green credentials, which refers to how the clothes are made before they hit stores. 

However, in 2022, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda to scrutinise their fashion ‘green’ claims, after they identified concerns of possible greenwashing during its initial review of the fashion sector. 

Following this action by the CMA, millions of consumers can now expect to see accurate and clear green claims when shopping for fashion items. 

More specifically, these retailers will change the way they display, describe and promote their green credentials. 

Asos, Boohoo and George at Asda have committed to rules around the use of green claims. Some of these include: 

  • They must all ensure green claims are accurate and not misleading. Key information must be clear and prominent, meaning it must be expressed in plain language, easy to read, and clearly visible to shoppers
  • Statements made about materials in green ranges must be specific and clear, such as ‘organic’ or ‘recycled’, rather than ambiguous language, like ‘eco’, ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainable’ without further explanation The percentage of recycled or organic fibres must be clearly displayed and easy for customers to see
  • Search filters must be accurate, only showing items that meet the filter requirements. For example, if a consumer uses a filter to show ‘recycled’ trousers, only trousers made from predominantly recycled materials should be shown 

Additional rules can be viewed on the website. 

As part of this update, which was released 27 March 2024, the CMA issued an open letter to the sector, urging fashion retailers to review their claims and practices.

For consumers, this means it’ll be easier to find ‘green’ clothes and know the materials they choose to purchase and wear truly are sustainable. 

How sustainable are food and drinks brands? 

New research from the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has found that consumers regularly overestimate just how sustainable food and drinks products are, based on the subtle marketing messaging from brands. 

As part of its Climate Change and Environment project, the ASA’s report found that we’re accepting green assertions without scrutiny, as long as they adhere to regulations. This typically means consumers are accepting a product is sustainable when they see terms, like ‘national’ or if they use images of nature or green colour scheme. 

Going forward, the ASA has pledged to tackle marketing ads that make misleading claims for food and drinks, as this has a direct impact on some consumers’ purchasing habits. 

The ASA report found that messages usually focus on taste, nutrition and price, but evidence shows ‘sustainable’ claims are used in various ways that lack qualification and its own evidence, which could be misleading to the consumer. 

How to make sure your plastic and consumer goods are recycled

Recycling plastic and consumer goods is more accessible than ever before. Small businesses throughout the UK are becoming recycling hubs, offering clothes recycling banks, or have signed up to become a Terracycle drop off point. 

Terracycle provides free recycling programmes for typically hard-to-recycle waste streams, and you are free to join as many of its ‘programmes’ as you wish. 

Currently, its programmes surrounding popular products include: 

A lot of popular brands have partnered with Terracycle to help encourage recycling and make it easier for consumers to reduce waste. 

Alternatively, clothes and other consumer goods can be donated if still in good condition, so if you’re unable to recycle, consider this route before it goes into general waste. 

Day-to-day ways of reducing plastic waste at home

Recycling plastic and consumer goods can be time consuming. If you are truly time poor, there are simple ways to further reduce your plastic waste. 

These include: 

  • Cut down on single-use plastic – Invest in reusable bags, food containers and reusable drinks bottles for when you’re travelling. Food containers and tupperware are also good alternatives to store leftover food over sandwich bags
  • Choose products with plastic-free packaging – Where possible, opt for products that don’t come wrapped in plastic. An easy example is buying a paper-wrapped bar of soap instead of a bottle of shower gel. Alternatively, invest in a shower gel bottle that can be refilled, like Radox. 
  • Buy items in store/person, instead of online – Items purchased online automatically come in more packaging, since they need to be protected during shipping. Although not all packaging used is plastic, sometimes it’s not worth the risk, so try shop in person where you can

There are several more initiatives that will help you reduce your plastic usage/waste at home, such as reusing plastic items. Times where you need to buy a bag from a store, they make for great bin liners on small bins. 

What happens to plastic once it’s recycled? 

The UK currently sends most of its recycled plastic packaging overseas to be turned into new products. This is because historically, there is higher demand for our recycling in other countries and it’s cheaper to process. 

Some countries have now heavily restricted what materials they will accept to avoid contamination and poor quality products. 

The recycling industry is highly regulated. One rule in place is the prevention of waste shipments from being sent abroad where there’s a bigger risk of it being dumped. The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing the rules and this involves checking some shipments before they are sent overseas. 

Benefits of recycling plastics 

As mentioned, recycling is time consuming. However, the benefits far outweigh the costs. 

These include reduced CO2 emissions entering the atmosphere, as well as helping to prevent pollution and conserving energy across the supply chain. 

Reduced CO2

According to the University of Colorado Boulder, between 2020 and 2050 recycling can cut CO2 by 5.5 to 6.02 gigatons, which is equivalent to taking over 1 billion cars off the streets for one year. 

Also, according to research by the British Plastics Federation, if all plastic were recycled, it would save 30-150 million tonnes of CO2 entering the atmosphere each year, which is the equivalent to closing between eight and 40 coal-fired power plants globally. 

And each tonne of plastic is responsible for around 5 tonnes of CO2, around twice the amount produced by oil. That number gets larger if it’s burned as a means of disposal. Even recycling one or two more bottles over time will have a positive impact on CO2 emissions.

Save plastics entering the ocean 

Over 400 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year globally, with at least 14 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean every year. In fact, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris found from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. 

As well as injuring or killing marine species, plastic pollution in the ocean threatens food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism and contributes to climate change. 

The IUCN says that governments, research institutions and industries need to work together to redesign products, and rethink their use and disposal to reduce microplastic waste. It recommends consumers shift to more consumption patterns (see above).

Prevents pollution and fossil fuel consumption

Recycling plastic reduces the need to extract the new, raw materials from the earth by reusing what has already been processed. 

According to Buxton Water, this can help reduce emission of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, as well as preventing more rubbish going into landfill.  

Finally, plastic production uses a lot of oil and while recycling uses fossil fuels during its process, it’s significantly less than creating new plastics. 

Conserve energy 

Recycling a single plastic bottle will save enough energy to power a lightbulb for three hours or more, and recycling five plastic bottles creates enough insulating fibre to fill a ski jacket. 

Overall, it takes 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle using recycled plastic compared to newly-made plastic, as reported by Recycle Now.  

The recycling company said: “Remember that sometimes plastic can be the most sustainable packaging choice, so it’s not always in the environment’s best interest to remove it from our lives completely. 

“To put it simply, recycling is the best option when it comes to disposing of our plastic (where reuse and refill is not an option), giving the material the best change of a new life, rather than going to landfill or being burned for energy.” 


  • There are seven different types of plastic to make popular household items, not all can be recycled at home
  • Certain plastics can only be recycled at specialist centres. If they are recycled at home, instead of being taken to a designated recycling point, they will go into general waste
  • Understanding each of the recycling symbols will ensure you know how to dispose of your recycling and waste properly
  • Three retailers have pledged to label their clothing with more accurate and clear green claims following an investigation by the CMA. It will change the way they display, describe and promote their green credentials
  • Small businesses throughout the UK are becoming recycling hubs, offering clothes recycling banks, or have signed up to become a Terracycle drop off point. 
  • Cutting down on single-use plastics, choosing plastic-free packaging and buying items in person over online will help further reduce plastic waste
  • The UK currently sends most of its recycled plastic packaging overseas to be turned into new products
Written by:
Tamara Birch, senior writer, The Eco Experts
Tamara has written about environmental topics for more than four years. This includes advising small business owners on cost-effective ways, like solar panels and energy-efficient products to help them become more sustainable. 
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