decoding the codes…
recycling symbols 101

Organized Recycling Recycling has gotten a whole lot easier lately; many communities are now offering single-stream recycling (meaning you can toss all of your recyclables into one bin). Others require basic sorting and still others require very specific sorting. Either way, it’s a good idea to know your recyclables!Since all the symbols and numbers can get confusing, we’ve put it all together and broken it down to its most basic to help you recycle any product in the best, most eco-friendly way. 


Glass is the easy one. Most common household glass – like jars, beverage containers, drinking glasses, etc. – can be recycled. Treated glass like Pyrex can’t be, and most other glass (like what’s in electronics) can vary. Of course, it’s always a good idea to reuse the container as much as possible before recycling it!

Glass 1

Mixed Glass

Glass 2

Clear Glass

Glass 3

Green Glass


Metal is the next easiest to figure out. Aluminum cans are pretty obvious, but clean aluminum foil can be recycled as well. As for other items, like food cans, check your local facility.

Metal 1


Metal 2


Metal 3



Plastics are where things get challenging. The symbols are divided into seven categories and generally, the higher the number, the more difficult the material is to recycle. Numbers don’t necessarily equal recyclability or sustainability, however. Many elements of plastics are considered harmful to the environment, and some plastics are considered harmful to our health.

1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE)

Common products: Single-use plastic water bottles, soft-drink bottles. Recyclability: Widely accepted.

2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE)

Common products: Some retail plastic bags, some yogurt containers. Recyclability: Widely accepted.

3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or V)

Common products: Toys, some food containers/wraps, pipe. Recyclability: Limited.

4. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

Common products: Thin plastic bags, some plastic containers (e.g., soap dispensers). Recyclability: Can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally.

5. Polypropylene (PP)

Common products: Straws, soft-drink cups, some food containers. Recyclability: Can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally.

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Common products: Styrofoam containers and cups. Recyclability: Sometimes accepted, but low demand for recycled Styrofoam has limited its acceptance.

7. Other

Includes plastics not included in the previous six categories, including BPA, polycarbonate and bio-based plastics. Common products: Water bottles, food containers. Recyclability: Generally not recyclable, but bio-based plastics can sometimes be composted.


Most paper is recyclable, including cardboard. The exceptions include paper towels, napkins, and plastic-coated papers. Some facilities can accept wax-coated paper, and some can accept highly colored, glossy paper (like print ads), while others cannot. Check with your local facility for specific details. Paper is not often labeled, but these are the most common ones you may find:

Paper 1

Cardboard paper

Paper 2

Mixed paper

Paper 3

Paper (printer)


There are some things that just ought not go into any recycling, no matter what. These things will do more harm than good and should be disposed of properly. Batteries, electronics and even lightbulbs should not go into the general recycling bin. Check with your local facility to find out how to dispose of these non-recyclables. Other things that should never be recycled may be labeled with one of the following:








Toxic / poisonous

Recyclable vs. Recycled


The “three chasing arrows” icon is probably the most well-recognized recycling symbol. Just because you see that symbol doesn’t mean the item can go in the recycling bin. Many products are labeled this way to denote they’re made from recycled content. They may, or may not, be able to be recycled again. According to the EPA, paper can be recycled oly five to seven times before it begins to degrade. And what about pre-consumer recycled content? That label means manufacturing waste has been reclaimed and recycled before it ever went to the consumer. Post-consumer recycled content means the item went to the consumer, was used, disposed of and then recycled.


Recyclable does not always equal compostable (and vice versa). Most items labeled biodegradable are compostable, but you might want to check with a local expert to see if the item will degrade in a home compost pile or bin. Otherwise, check with a local composting facility to see if they will accept biodegradables. There are several symbols and terms used on this front.

And of course, for more info, check with Earth 911.

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3 thoughts on “decoding the codes…
recycling symbols 101

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