Recycling Symbols on Plastics Explained

Around 46% of plastic waste in the UK gets recycled

Plastic can only be recycled two to three times, after that it degrades too much

One tonne of plastic produces around 5 tonnes of CO2, twice as much as oil

Recycling remains a highly effective way to reduce your environmental impact. So even if you're unsure about paying the cost for solar panels, or other green technologies, properly disposing of your waste can still help you live a greener life.

When it comes to recycling, understanding what all the symbols on plastic products mean can get confusing.

But it’s important for us to wrap our heads around these symbols because they let us know how to dispose of each item.

If plastic products end up in a recycling centre that doesn’t treat that specific material, they might just end up going to landfill.

In this article, we’ll explain what the recycling symbols on common plastic items mean, and let you know how to properly recycle each different type of plastic.

Plastic bottles and containers in a pile for recycling

Recyclable plastics: What are they and how can you spot them?

Recycling is a complicated system, and it isn’t perfect. In fact, not all plastics can be recycled – and the ones that can be, are only recycled two to three times before they degrade too much to be used again. That’s why it’s important to understand what can be recycled – and how to do it properly – in order to minimise waste.

There are seven different types of recyclable plastics, which are each indicated by a number on the recycling symbol usually found on packaging:

  1. PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
  2. HDPE (high-density polyethylene)
  3. PVC or V (polyvinyl chloride or vinyl)
  4. LDPE (low-density polyethylene)
  5. PP (polypropylene)
  6. PS (polystyrene)
  7. Miscellaneous plastics

Not familiar with a lot of these names? Don’t worry, in the sections below we’re going to explain what each of these plastics are, which common products are made from them, and how they’re recycled.

Plastic recycle labels: what do they mean?

Most of us are familiar with the recycling symbol – that triangle made up of arrows going in a clockwise motion. If it appears on plastic containers and products, it usually means they are recyclable.

You might have also noticed a number between one and seven inside the recycling triangle. This indicates the type of plastic the item is made of and determines how you dispose of it properly.

Some plastic can be placed in your recycling bin, to be collected from your home, whilst others need to be taken to specialised collection points. And unfortunately, some plastics can’t be recycled at all.

Infographic depicting 7 different plastic recycling symbols with explanations of what they mean underneath each one

1. PET or PETE 

When a recycling symbol has a ‘1’ in the middle of the triangle, that means the plastic is made of PET, or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is a very common plastic and is widely recycled across the country – with 75% of PET bottles getting recycled in the UK.

You’ll typically find that this type of plastic is strong and clear, and is often used to make bottles for beverages, cooking oils, medicine, and other liquid products. It’s also sometimes used to make clear, rigid packaging, like the kind used to store fresh fruit or vegetables.

PET plastic is recycled in almost all local authorities in the UK – a few might not simply because they are unable to transfer it to a recycling centre. It can be added to household recycling bins, or dropped off at designated recycling points.


If a recycling symbol contains the number ‘2’, the plastic is HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – another very common plastic.

It’s a versatile plastic with a slightly opaque appearance, and is used to make many different products, including milk containers, shampoo and detergent bottles, and other sturdy food containers. It’s also often used to make reusable plastic cups, plates, and bowls, as it’s dishwasher safe.

HDPE can also be recycled easily in virtually all local authorities, either through household collection or at recycling drop-off points.

3. PVC or V

PVC (polyvinyl chloride), also referred to as V (vinyl), is represented by the number ‘3’ on the recycling symbol.

It’s a sturdy, rigid plastic, and is used to make building material, such as window frames, pipes, and some types of flooring. It’s also used to make medical equipment, including fluid bags and blister packs for tablets.

In terms of domestic recycling for PVC, the options are quite limited. Although PVC plastic is recyclable on an industrial scale, most local authorities won’t recycle it as part of household waste.

This is because PVC often ends up as commercial waste rather than domestic waste. So whilst mass recycling options exist for companies and manufacturers, it’s not currently available for individual households.

If you have old windows or pipes hanging around your property after a home renovation, you can try asking the renovators/installers to dispose of them for you.


When a recycling symbol contains the number ‘4’, that means the product is made of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) plastic.

This soft, flexible plastic is often used to make shopping bags, sandwich bags, cling film, or food packaging films. It’s also sometimes used for water pipes and hoses, or for electric wire coatings.

Although LDPE products are fully recyclable, not all local authorities recycle them – and none offer LDPE recycling through household collection. This is mainly because of the lack of facilities that are able to process this plastic.

Instead, a few local authorities have special drop-off points for LDPE products – some local supermarkets, for example, accept used plastic bags. You can check where these are by visiting your local council’s website.

5. PP

The number ‘5’ on the recycling symbol means the product is made of PP (polypropylene) plastic.

This very common plastic is robust and opaque, and is often used for bottle lids and caps, or hard food containers, such as yoghurt pots. PP is also used to make a lot of plastic toys, since it doesn’t break easily.

A large number of local authorities in the UK recycle PP, either through household recycling collection, or at a recycling drop-off point.

If you’re unsure where to dispose of your PP products, check your local council’s website to see if they recycle them.

6. PS

PS – better known as polystyrene – 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.

PS is famously hard to recycle, which is why there are very few options in the UK for doing this.

A few UK recycling centres accept certain types of PS – such as the kind used in floor and wall insulation, or car seating – so it’s worth checking with your local authority if any of these are near you.

7. Miscellaneous

The number ‘7’ on the recycling symbol refers to any other plastics that are not indicated by the numbers 1–6.

Commonly used plastics in this category include acrylic plastic, nylon, polycarbonate plastic, and PLA (polylactic acid), which is a biodegradable plastic made from plants.

The miscellaneous category includes a wide variety of plastic items, such as DVDs and CDs, sunglasses, crisp packets, some plastic trays and cutlery, and nylon tights.

Unfortunately, category ‘7’ plastic can’t be recycled through household collection or drop-off points. But some specialist centres offer to recycle specific items, such as crisp packets or old DVDs, so it’s worth investigating.

It’s also worth noting that PLA plastic is biodegradable, so if your council offers compost collection, it can be put in your compost bin.

It’s difficult to know exactly how much category ‘7’ plastic gets recycled, since it includes such a wide variety of plastics and items. But given the scarcity of recycling options for items in the category, it’s safe to assume that almost all of it ends up as general waste.

Woman putting plastic bottle in recycling bin

Benefits of recycling plastic

The main benefit of recycling plastic is that it reduces plastic pollution in natural environments, and produces fewer carbon emissions.

According to research by the Centre for Environmental policy, if all global plastic were recycled, it would save 30–150 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). This is a very large range because plastic recycling has a lot of variable factors, such as transport methods, whether electricity comes from renewable sources or not, and the shape and weight of plastic packaging.

One of the reasons why recycling leads to lower emissions is because recycling products use much less energy than making them from scratch with raw materials. Plastic is made from oil, which generates a huge amount of emissions – oil accounts for around 30% of global emissions.

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.

Recycling plastic is also the only sustainable way to dispose of it, so far – although there have been some trials with plastic-eating fungi.

After all, plastic, by its nature, isn't sustainable because it’s made from fossil fuels, takes hundreds of years to break down, and never fully disappears. That’s a terrifying thought when you consider that so far, the world has produced 8.3 billion tons of plastic.

When plastic isn’t recycled – or when it degrades past the point of recyclability – it usually ends up in landfill, or as litter on land and in the ocean. This causes harm to both humans and wildlife – with the average human eating a credit-card-sized amount of plastic per week.

Since the plastic that already exists will be around for hundreds of years, recycling it into something new is how we make the best of a bad situation.

Currently, the UK recycles around 46% of its plastic waste, which is better than the global average of 9%. But it’s also important for us to reduce the amount of plastic we use, and to reuse the plastic we already have before we recycle it.

Tips for how to reduce plastic waste at home

We’ll be honest, reducing your plastic waste can be time consuming. And unfortunately, the burden is often placed on the consumer, rather than the manufacturers who make the plastic.

Thankfully, there are a few simple things you can do to start cutting back on plastic waste at home – starting with these three easy-to-follow tips:

  • Cut down on single-use plastics – Instead, try reusable bags for your shopping, and reusable bottles when you want to have a drink on the go. In your kitchen, you can also use beeswax covers or tupperware instead of plastic wraps or bags to store leftover food
  • 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
  • Buy items in person instead of online – Items purchased online automatically come in more packaging, since they need to be protected during shipping. Although not all of this packaging will be plastic, and a good proportion of it usually is, so buy your products in person when you can to avoid this

There are lots more things you can do to reduce plastic waste at home, such as reusing plastic items that you already have – takeaway boxes make great free tupperware – but hopefully these tips give you a good starting point.


The goal of recycling is to limit the amount of plastic that ends up as waste and reduce plastic pollution. But if it’s not done right, plastic that could potentially be recycled will just end up as landfill.

Certain plastics can only be recycled at specialised centres. So if you throw them in with the regular recycling, instead of taking them to a designated recycling point, they’ll be added to general waste.

That’s why it’s important to understand the numbers on plastic recycling symbols, since these let you know how to dispose of your recycling and waste properly.

Written by:
Tatiana has written about multiple environmental topics, including heat pumps, energy-efficient household products, and solar panels. She is dedicated to demystifying green tech to make eco-friendly living more accessible.
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