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Recycling Symbols: What Can You Actually Recycle?

Between navigating through the arrows, circles, and numbers, recycling symbols can quickly turn into a code we have to decipher. All we're trying to do is take care of our 'Aina! Unfortunately, when codes aren't clear and people aren't educated on what they mean, recyclables of all kinds end up getting dumped into one giant bin. When this happens, recycling isn't as effective as it should be and rates drop. While about 75% of America's waste is recyclable, not all of it actually gets recycled3. But wait... it is easy! Understanding what products are recyclable, how you should recycle them, and how to sort them is a significant part of understanding how to recycle.

Getting our recycling rate to 75% would have a similar effect to removing 50 million passenger cars from US roads3

Recycling Symbols

First, you have to identify if your item is even recyclable! Check the label for any indication that it is. If it's not, it belongs in either your waste or compost bin. If it's recyclable, you're good to go!

recyclable symbol

Recyclable Symbol

This is the widely known, universal symbol for a recyclable product. Also known as the Mobius Loop, it gives us information about the item's recyclability. This symbol tell us that the item is recyclable, is accepted by most community programs, but doesn't necessarily contain reclaimed materials2


recycled symbolRecycled Symbol

This symbol is similar to the recyclable symbol, but is enclosed in a circle. The circle implies that the item is recycled. However, it's important to take note what is recycled-- it could be the packaging, lid or cap, or the product itself! When the symbol has black arrows against a white background, it indicates that the product is made of a combination of both new and reused materials. Sometimes, you'll see an exact percentage in the center. On the other hand, when the arrows are white and are against a black background, the product is 100% recycled2


Plastic Codes

Next, sort out your plastic recyclables. While plastics may be the most commonly recycled material, there are a variety of different plastics and they shouldn't all be treated the same. There are a total of seven different plastics, all identified by their own unique number, a Resin Identification Code. The purpose of these numbers is to properly separate the materials, which promotes more efficient recycling. These symbols give us information about harmful chemicals used during production, the safety of the plastic, how biodegradable the plastic is, and how likely it is for the plastic to result in leaching1. Don't get this confused with what can be recycled and what can't-- all 7 types of plastics are recyclable. Even though they may not all be accepted by curbside programs, you can drop them off at a local recycling center. (insert link)

Tip: Higher number = less common = harder to reuse2. 😉


1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)

If you see a "1" in the middle of a recycling triangle, this means that the package is made of PET or PETE, aka Polyethylene Terephthalate. This symbol is commonly seen in soft drink, beer, and water bottles, oven-safe food trays, salad dressing and vegetable oil containers, peanut butter containers, and mouthwash bottles. It's lightweight and easy to recycle, safe, and can be recycled into new containers, straps, paneling, carpet, furniture, tote bags, fiber, fleece1... and Waiakea bottles (Waiakea is rPET - more on that here)! 🙌


2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

A "2" in the middle of a recycling triangle means that the plastic is made of HDPE, or High-Density Polyethylene. HDPE is one of three plastics considered safe because of its low risk of leaching. You can find HDPE in milk jugs, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, butter and yogurt tubs, motor oil bottles, shopping and trash bags, and household and detergent cleaner bottles. Just like PET, HDPE can be recycled into something new! It can be recycled into laundry detergent bottles, lumber, drainage pipes, pens, oil bottles, fencing, picnic tables, doghouses, floor tiles, and recycling containers1! Comes full circle, doesn't it? 


3. Vinyl (V or PVC)

The "3" inside triangles signals that the plastic container is made of vinyl, or V or PVC. However, vinyl is rarely recycled and is not accepted by most curbside recycling programs, unlike PET or HDPE. You'll commonly see vinyl in window cleaner and detergent bottles, piping, siding, medical equipment, clear food packaging, cooking oil bottles, and shampoo bottles. The downside is that vinyl contains phthalates, which can cause a series of health problems including miscarriages and developmental problems. It also contains DEHA, which can compromise liver health and loss of bone mass. Since vinyl poses possible health risks, it should never be burned or cooked with. A small amount of PVC can be recycled into mats, speed bumps, cables, flooring, decks, and more1


4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Low-Density Polyethylene, or LDPE, is identified with a "4" inside recycling triangle symbols. LDPE is considered a safe form of plastic, however it's rarely accepted in some local communities' curbside recycling programs. You'll commonly find LDPE in shopping bags, squeezable bottles, carpet, furniture, dry cleaning bags, or frozen food bags. It's not commonly recycled, but when it is, it can be used to make floor tiles, lumber, shipping envelopes, compost bins, and trash liners1. One tip to reduce your use of LDPE in plastic shopping bags would be to opt in for a reusable bag! 


5. Polypropylene (PP)

A "5" inside recycling triangles means that the plastic is Polypropylene, or PP. PP is one of the safer plastics and is now becoming more acceptable in curbside recycling programs! It's most commonly found in medicine bottles, straws, bottle caps, ketchup bottles, syrup bottles, and some yogurt containers. PP bottles can be recycled into trays, bins, rakes, ice scrapers, auto battery cases, signal lights, and more1


6. Polystyrene (PS)

If you see a "6" inside a recycling triangle symbol, this means that the plastic is made of Styrofoam or Polystyrene. Unfortunately, these materials have a low density, making them more difficult to recycle. This is why some consider it bad for our environment and communities have even banned it! Most disposable cups, plates, compact disc cases, aspirin bottles, take-out containers, egg cartons, and meat trays are made of PS. Although it isn't accepted by most recycling programs, it can be recycled into more take-out containers, foam packaging, rulers, insulation, and more1


7. Miscellaneous Plastics

Any plastics that don't fall under the six kinds listed above are marked with "7." This category is a mixture of different plastics including polycarbonate and the toxic bisphenol-A, or BPA. BPA is considered highly harmful and can cause reproductive problems, hyperactivity, infertility, and other hormone disruptions. No curbside recycling program will accept these plastics, but it can be recycled into some custom-made products and plastic lumber. These plastics can be found in nylon, some food containers, signs and displays, iPod and computer cases, DVDs, sunglasses, and 3 and 5 gallon water bottles1


Industry-Specific Symbols


Electronic Recyclers International and Recycled Paperboard Alliance are two examples of organizations that adopted their own recyclable symbol for discarded cardboard, glass, or even old electronics. An example of one of these symbols would be the branded "100% Recycled Paperboard" label on cereal boxes.

Along with plastic, all non-plastic recyclables, such as glass, aluminum cans, paper, and cardboard can be tossed into the same recycling bin you have at home! The days of having to sift through cardboard, aluminum, glass, and plastic are over in most US towns and cities thanks to Single-Stream Recycling. SSR is made possible with new technology that sorts recyclables using lasers, magnets, and electric currents. 


Hopefully, we made recycling a little bit easier for you! Since the ability to recycle some common plastics, glass, and aluminum is a bit hazy, we recommend researching what your own city's curbside recycling policy is. Remember, recycling is always better for the environment! Virgin material manufacturing requires nearly double the energy than recycled material manufacturing, even when you include the energy needed for collecting, hauling and processing the recyclables. Once you have this process down, you'll be helping our 'Aina one step at a time. 🌱