What Do Those Plastic Recycling Codes Mean?

When our fearless leader handed me this assignment, I thought, “What’s confusing about plastic recycling? I just toss all of my plastics into my recycling container and forget about it.” And then I did some research…

Holy excessive codes, Batman! There’s PET (or PETE because one ambiguous code isn’t hassle enough), HDPE, PVC, PP and several more symbols to decipher. I feel like I need a super secret agent decoder ring to figure out what each one means. And, of course, although some of these can be recycled at home, some of them need to be taken to a recycling center. Let me see if I can help you navigate some of this madness.


Plastics that bear a little triangle symbol with a 1 inside and the letters PET—or PETE—beneath the image are made from polyethylene terephthalate. You’ll see this symbol on soda and water bottles, beer bottles (who drinks beer out of plastic?!), mouthwash bottles, and peanut butter jars. PET is easily recycled via curbside recycling pickup services.


When the little triangle has a 2 inside and the code of either HDPE or PE-HD under it, you know that the plastic it adorns is made from high-density polyethylene. Like PET plastics, HDPE plastics are picked up by most curbside recycling companies. So keep tossing your milk jugs, household cleaner bottles, and harder plastic containers used for things like yogurt or butter into the recycling bin.

Limited Recyclable Plastics

Here’s where it gets difficult. Plastics marked with PVC (and a number 3), LDPE or PE-LE (number 4), and PP (number 5) have limited recyclability. Toys and some food containers are made from PVC, while some thin plastic bags are made from LDPE (or PE-LE) plastics. PP stands for polypropylene, a tough plastic used for making straws, soda cups and some food containers. Your best bet is to check with your curbside pickup company to make sure they will accept such items.

Expanded Polystyrene and BPA

Expanded polystyrene (commonly known by Dow product brand name Styrofoam) is labeled with a number 6 triangle and the letters PS underneath. There’s very limited recycling available for expanded polystyrene, which is why most companies have done away with it. However, you can still find it in electronics packaging and in every to go restaurant in creation. Check with your community to see where to find a facility for PS recycling.

When I was doing my research, I found that my town accepts all plastics, numbered 1 through 7, except for 6 (polystyrene). This is particularly interesting since number 7 plastics, labeled “OTHER,” are often non-recyclable. I wonder if they’re just throwing it away? These plastics include BPA — which you shouldn’t be using anyway — polycarbonate and bio-based plastics which are used for food containers and water bottles.

So the lesson to this story is: Do some research. When it comes to recycling, we can’t assume anything.

Recent Posts


  1. I have never done a swap party; one of my best friends has 16 sister-in-laws, in all shapes and sizes. (Husband is Muslim; dad has two wives.) So whenever clothes and items don’t fit but are useful, I usually take donations and haul them over to where she is.

    One evening I met some of her sister in laws and we went through everything. It was fun seeing their eyes light up at all the cool, honestly barely used clothes they enjoyed.

    I also have this habit – well, had – of gorging on fine mid-chain retail lingerie. To the point where things weren’t worn and tags were left on… then I’d stop liking them and want to throw them out. When I worked there and a free item didn’t come in my size, I took it home too. It was great to give away these things…especially because some people can’t afford it.

  2. As a note, Montreal is piloting a program for recycling polystyrene (commonly know as Styrofoam). :)

  3. Pingback: Recycle 101: 12 Home Hacks To Reduce Your Expenses & Save the Planet | Earth911.com

  4. Pingback: Blog – Beautiful chaos

  5. Pingback: 6 Ways to Reuse Plastic Bottles | Earth911.com

  6. Pingback: We Earthlings: Recycling Plastic #1 | Earth911.com

  7. Pingback: To the Point: Pens and Pencils Offer Eco-friendlier Features | Earth911.com

Leave a Comment