The Meaning of the Numbers Inside the Recycling Symbol

February 9, 2010 at 1:22 am 7 comments

By: Chad Upton | Editor

I remember going to the grocery store as a small child. It seemed like we were there for hours before finally packing all of our purchases into large brown paper bags. A few years later they phased out paper bags over concern for the trees required to make the bags.  They were replaced with plastic bags and we have used them almost ever since. But, A few years ago, paper bags started appearing once again. Although they’re made from trees, those are pretty easy to grow compared to the raw materials of plastic.

It seems like everything is made from plastic now. I did a bit of dumpster diving tonight to find out how much. I went through my recycling bin looking for things with the recycling symbol on them — I guess that probably doesn’t really count as “dumpster diving.” These numbers only appear inside the recycling symbol on plastic products.

Plastic is a petroleum product, meaning the raw material used to create plastic is oil. It’s no secret that oil is one of the most in-demand natural resources and for a variety of reasons oil prices have sharply increased over the past 10 years. It’s not just the fuel companies who are affected by the increasing price of oil, but also plastic manufacturers. Both of these groups have to pass those increased costs on to their customers, and those businesses pass it on to their customers. Somewhere down the line, that customer is you and you’ve obviously noticed at the gas pump.

But, you may not have noticed the increase on plastic prices, at least not directly. Depending on where you live, you may have noticed a big or small push for you to use (or buy) reusable grocery bags. Of course these are great for the environment, but they also save the grocery store a lot of money on plastic bags, which have become significantly more expensive in the past few years. In some places, you even have to pay extra if you want plastic bags.

Oil is a non-renewable resource, once we run out that’s it — we’re out. Experts say we are getting closer and closer to the end of the crude supply and some of our oil now comes from alternative oil supplies, which are more costly and more time consuming to extract and refine.

Therefore, it is extremely important to recycle plastic. It costs money to recycle, but it helps reduce the price of plastic by minimizing the demand for and price of oil. Additionally, plastic is not something we want in our landfills since it does not decompose the way many other things do.

Plastic is very versatile, it can be made into a fabric like material for nylon windbreakers or grocery bags. It can also be a very hard material for outdoor furniture and decking, not to mention the products that fall between these soft and hard extremes. This diversity comes from the variety of plastic polymers that have been developed with these different properties.

The number inside the recycling symbol indicates the type of plastic polymer the item is made from. Because it is so important to recycle plastic, you’ll find this symbol and number on almost everything made out of plastic. The manufacturers want you to recycle because it helps them keep their costs down and our landfills clear of plastic.

Most of the time, you’ll also see an acronym below the symbol that matches the number. The cool thing is, in addition to the type of plastic, it will actually indicate if it is made from recycled plastic. You’ll see in this table, the plastic numbers and their corresponding names and acronyms. If these acronyms are preceded by the letter “P”, that indicates it is made from recycled plastic of that type.

Number Acronym Name
1 PETE or PET Polyethylene terephthalate
2 HDPE High density polyethylene
3 PVC or V Polyvinyl chloride
4 LDPE Low density polyethylene
5 PP Polypropylene
6 PS Polystyrene
7 OTHER or O Acrylic, Fiberglass, Nylon…etc

From my dumpster session I noticed that all of the food containers were either PETE or PP and some other household products were HDPE.

Not everyone recycles, which is unfortunate. Most cities have a recycling program, even if you have to collect your things and drop them off at a nearby depot. Check with your city, they usually indicate which types of plastic they will recycle (many places only take 1 and 2).

Even if you don’t care about the planet, hopefully you care about your wallet. Please recycle as much as possible.

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Sources: Resin Codes, Plastics

Entry filed under: Around The House, Be Efficient, Be Frugal, Be Green. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. karpathia  |  April 25, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    I really like your site and the things we learn from it, but sometimes you ask the question at the top of the subect followed by a photo, and tell a long story before awsering it, making a bit tedius ti read it.

    • 2. Chad Upton  |  April 25, 2010 at 5:09 pm

      I appreciate the feedback. The picture appears near the beginning of the article so it shows up before the jump in RSS readers. The long stories have been dropped in newer articles. I’m glad you like my site and I think you’ll enjoy the newer articles even more for this reason.

  • 3. Blake Smith  |  June 4, 2010 at 5:27 am

    I disagree, I like the longer articles because obviously it gives you more space to tell more info. please do not sacrifice quality for quantity.I as well love your site and I have to say that the headphones as a microphone technique blew my mind.

    thank you for your dedication to fill my free time,


  • 4. Cristina Blake  |  July 3, 2010 at 6:04 am

    The article itself is very useful. I will not join the debate of presentation on this matter. It is true that not everyone recycles however, more people are now being creative in recycling things like this site I have encountered. The Handbag Closet offers uniquely designed “to get you noticed” handmade bags, and handmade purses. All items are made out of recycled materials such as candy wrappers, magazines, and juice pouches. You might want to check it out,

  • 5. Robert  |  July 18, 2012 at 10:54 am

    The fuel companies have been hit hard by the increasing price of oil??? you must be kidding, right? Record profits in the billions, at least to me, doesn’t sound like hard-hitting…

  • 6. fxcvfhgbfbfgb  |  July 21, 2012 at 1:31 am

    It was a very nice and innovative idea to prove the importance of recycling and hope that everyone reads this information and becomes aware how much it is important to think and save our environment!

  • 7. bmx boy  |  May 11, 2015 at 4:18 am

    That’s completely different frm what I thought about the numbers. I thought that the numbers indicate number of times the material has been recycled…
    I was amazed by this… !!!


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