What Does That Chasing Arrow Symbol on Plastics Mean?

Professor Plastics

Read Bio
Professor Plastics in a classroom

You know that little triangular symbol on the bottom of your plastic milk jug or detergent container or soft drink bottle? Looks sort of like chasing arrows with a number in the middle?

Any idea what that means?

As Professor Plastics, I’m glad I asked.

That little symbol was created in 1988 to identify the type of plastic (we call them resins) used to make the bottle, container, and packaging. It’s called a Resin Identification Code (RIC). Very official sounding, no?

Recyclers sometimes use this information to help them sort plastics for recycling, so people often think of the chasing arrows as a recycling symbol, but that’s not technically accurate.

While the RIC helped plastics recycling grow dramatically since the 1988, it often causes confusion among many people standing in front of their recycling bin wondering: can I recycle this?

Today, new and better ways to identify what packaging and products are recyclable have begun to shift focus away from the little symbol. For example, in the U.S. the Sustainable Packaging Coalition has created a “How2Recycle” label that explains more clearly what and how to recycle. Thankfully, the How2Recycle label is quickly catching on.

First—What Can Be Recycled?

When it comes to recycling plastics, where you live makes a big difference. The types of plastic items collected vary from place to place. So first always find out what plastics are accepted in your community… it’s as simple as searching online for “plastics recycling” and the name of your community. Or check out IWantToBeRecycled.org and type in your zip code. For some quick plastics recycling know-how, check out our list of The Ultimate 9 Quick Tips to Recycle More Plastics.

And remember: although flexible wraps and bags typically aren’t collected in curbside programs (please keep them out of your curbside bin!), more than 18,000 grocery and retail stores across the country do collect these plastics for recycling.

What Are Those Numbers in the Triangle All About?

So… what exactly do those numbers 1 through 7 stand for? Below is a list of the types of plastics (remember: resins), common packaging products made from them, and some products that may be made with that recycled plastic resin.

NOTE: These lists are not exhaustive. But I do get exhausted writing about how many things these days are made with recycled plastics…

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) or (PET)

Uses of PET include: bottles for soft drinks, water, sports drinks, beer, mouthwash, and salad dressing; food jars for peanut butter, jelly, and pickles; produce containers.

Products made with recycled PET include: fibers for carpet, fleece jackets, and comforter fill; containers for food, beverages, and non-food items; microwavable food trays and tote bags.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Uses of HDPE include: bottles/jugs for milk, water, juice, cosmetics, shampoo, dish/laundry detergents, and household cleaners; containers for margarine, cottage cheese, and other foods; cereal box liners; trash and retail bags.

Products made with recycled HDPE include: bottles for items such as shampoo, conditioner, laundry detergent, household cleaners, motor oil, and antifreeze; plastic lumber for outdoor decking, fencing, and picnic tables; pipe, floor tiles, buckets, crates, flower pots, garden edging, and recycling bins.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC, Vinyl)

Uses of PVC include: deli and meat wrap, shrink wrap, retail product packaging (blister packs).

Products made with recycled PVC include: pipe, decking, fencing, paneling, gutters, carpet backing, floor tiles and mats, resilient flooring, mud flaps, cassette trays, electrical boxes, cables, traffic cones, garden hoses, mobile home skirting, packaging, and loose-leaf binders.

4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Uses of LDPE include: bags for dry cleaning, newspapers, bread, frozen foods, fresh produce, and household garbage; shrink wrap and stretch film, coatings for paper milk cartons and hot and cold beverage cups, container lids, and squeezable bottles (e.g. honey, mustard).

Products made with recycled LDPE include: shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, floor tile, paneling, furniture, compost bins, trash cans, landscape timber, and outdoor lumber.

5. Polypropylene (PP)

Uses of PP include: Containers for yogurt, margarine, take out meals, and deli foods; bottle caps and closures; bottles for medicine, syrup, and ketchup.

Products made with recycled PP include: automobile applications such as battery cases, signal lights, battery cables; brooms and brushes, ice scrapers, oil funnels, bicycle racks, garden rakes, storage bins, shipping pallets, and trays.

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Uses of PS include: foodservice items such as cups, plates, bowls, cutlery, and hinged take-out containers; meat and poultry trays, egg cartons, and food containers; protective packaging for electronics, furniture and other delicate items; packing peanuts, compact disc cases, and aspirin bottles.

Products made with recycled PS include: thermal insulation, picture frames, thermometers, light switch plates, vents, desk trays, license plate frames, cameras or video cassette casings, egg cartons, plastic moldings (i.e., wood replacement products), and expandable polystyrene (EPS) foam protective packaging.

7. Other

“Other”indicates that a package is made with a resin other than the six listed above or is made with more than one resin.

Uses of “other” plastic include: three- and five-gallon reusable water bottles and some citrus juice and ketchup bottles.

Products made with recycled “other” resin include: bottles and plastic lumber applications.

Now that you know what that little symbol means, help keep the momentum in plastics recycling going! Check out these plastics recycling tips to learn how to recycle everything you can.