You’ve seen the little recycling symbols stamped on plastics, glass, paper, metals and other materials. But what do they mean? We’ve compiled a handy guide to help you decode the dizzying array of icons and ensure that your products are recycled the way they are intended to be.


The recycling symbols for plastics are divided into seven categories. Generally, the higher the number, the more difficult it is for the material to be recycled. However, just because the product has a number on it doesn’t necessarily mean it can be recycled, nor that it’s eco-friendly. In fact, some elements of plastics — such as bisphenol-A, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride — have been shown to have harmful effects on health and the environment.

1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Common products: Single-use plastic water bottles, soft-drink bottles

Recyclability: Widely accepted

Plastic recycling Symbol PET 01

2. High-density polyethylene (PE-HD)

Common products: Some retail plastic bags, some yogurt containers

Recyclability: Widely accepted

Plastic Recycling Symbol PE-HED 02

3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Common products: Toys, some food containers/wraps, pipe

Recyclability: Limited

Plastic Recycling Symbol 3 PVC

4. Low-density polyethylene (PE-LD)

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.

Plastic Recycling symbol 04 PE-LD

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.

Plastic Recycling symbol 05 Polypropylene

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Common products: Styrofoam containers and cups

Recyclability: Sometimes accepted, but low demand for recycled Styrofoam has limited its acceptance.

Recycling symbol 06 Polystyrene aka styrofoam

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.

Recycling symbol 07 Other


Most paper and cardboard products can be recycled. However, there are a few recycling exceptions, including paper towels, napkins and plastic-coated boxes. If a paper product can be recycled, it may or may not have one of the following recycling symbols:

20 PAP: Cardboard 

Paper recycling symbol 20 Cardboard

21 PAP: Mixed paper (often found in magazines, mail)

Paper recycling symbol #21 mixed paper

22 PAP: Paper (letter/printer paper, etc.)

Paper recycling symbol #22 letter, printer paper


Most commonly used glass products (e.g., jars and beverage containers) can be recycled, but for other items containing glass (e.g., electronics), check to see what’s accepted locally. Alternatively, reuse glass containers.

70 GL: Mixed glass

Glass recycling symbol #70 - mixed glass

71 GL: Clear glass

Glass recycling symbol #71 - clear glass

72 GL: Green glass

Glass recycling symbol #72 - green glass


Aluminum beverage cans are widely recycled. However, for other metal items, check to see what is accepted locally.

40 FE: Steel

Steel recycling symbol #40

41 ALU: Aluminum

Aluminum recycling symbol #41 or  41-ALU

When recycling isn’t eco-friendly

Recycling may always seem like a good idea, but the reality is that throwing certain items into the recycle bin will likely do more harm than good. When disposed of improperly, batteries, electronics and other materials can be hazardous to the environment and human health.

Here are a few symbols that indicate an item should never be tossed into the recycle bin (or the trash):


Radioactive symbol


Biohazard symbol


Flammable symbol


Poisonous or toxic symbol

Keep in mind that many items, such as batteries and electronics, may not contain any of these symbols, but they should never be thrown away or recycled. Instead, check with your local sanitation department to see how hazardous waste should be disposed of in your area.

Recyclable vs. Recycled

The “three chasing arrows” icon is probably the most well-recognized recycling symbol. But just because a product has the universal recycling symbol on it doesn’t necessarily mean you should toss it in the recycle bin.

Recyclable symbol three chasing errors

Some products feature the recycling symbol to denote that they are made from recycled content, and they can’t necessarily be recycled again. For instance, according to the EPA, paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it begins to degrade. 

It is also important to distinguish between pre-consumer recycled content, which is made from manufacturer waste and hasn’t yet made it to the consumer, and post-consumer recycled content, which has been used, disposed of, and made into something else. If the product doesn’t say it was made from post-consumer recycled content, it probably wasn’t.


Although recyclable products aren’t necessarily compostable (and vice versa), more items may be compostable than you think. In fact, it is preferable to compost biodegradable plastic, because it may not degrade properly in oxygen-deprived landfills.

Compostable symbol

Compostable (U.S.) Image credit: Biodegradable Products Institute

The symbol above is often used to mark products certified as compostable by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). (Other symbols may be used to indicate compostability, especially outside the U.S.) But even if a product doesn’t have a symbol, it might still be compostable, so check BPI’s list of certified compostable products.

These guidelines are intended to be a starting point. When in doubt about whether to recycle, reuse or compost a particular item, be sure to contact your local sanitation department or visit for more information on what products can be recycled, and how to recycle them, in your area.

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Images via Wikimedia Commons