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Recycling Symbols and What They Mean


A big step any company can take to lessen its environmental impact is to establish a solid, easy-to-follow recycling program. To do this effectively, it's important to know the types and volume of materials your facility consumes on a regular basis. Once you know where the bulk of your waste is generated and what it comprises, it's easier to focus your program and get started.

The next step in your program is to figure out how to collect and recycle the waste material your facility generates. Community recycling programs can vary widely in terms of the materials they accept. Seek guidance from your local sanitation department for the types and volume of materials it accepts, as well as how to collect and recycle these items.

An important part in all of this is education, which includes learning the many symbols for plastics, glass and paper, and whether these symbols indicate if the material is recyclable at all, and if so, how and where it should be recycled.

Global Recycling Statistics
• Over the past 65 years, humans have produced 10 billion tons of plastic..
• Only about 9% of the total plastic produced since 1950 has been recycled.
• As of April 2021, nearly 6 billion tons of this plastic is either sitting in landfills or is polluting the environment.

What Does That Recycling Symbol Mean?

By now most people are familiar with the universal three-arrow symbol for recycling. This symbol simply means the material is recyclable somewhere. A number within the symbol indicates the type of material, and the properties of that material determine where and how it can be recycled. The three arrows stand for reduce, reuse recycle.

The universal symbol reversed out of a black background indicates that the item is made from recycled materials. But that doesn't necessarily mean the item itself is recyclable.

Symbol What it Means Where it's Found How to Recycle


Polyethylene Terephthalate

Plastic water bottles and soda bottles, salad dressing bottles, peanut butter containers and vegetable oil containers

Most curbside programs pick up these common plastics, as long as they are thoroughly rinsed.


High-Density Polyethylene

Plastic grocery bags, milk jugs and shampoo bottles, butter and yogurt tubs.

Plastic bags can be recycled at most stores; Most curbside programs pick up this type of plastic.

PVC and V

Polyvinyl Chloride and Vinyl

Vinyl siding, piping and windows

This material is rarely recycled, but check with your community sanitation department. Otherwise these items go to the landfill.


Low Density Polyethylene

Dry cleaning and shopping bags, furniture, squeeze bottles, toothpaste tubes

This material is rarely recycled, but check with your community sanitation department. Otherwise, these items go to the landfill.



Syrup and medicine bottles, caps, straws and some food containers

These can be recycled curbside if they are clean. More communities are accepting these materials for recycling.



Disposable plates and cups, egg cartons, carry-out containers

This material has limited use for recycling, but because Styrofoam breaks apart easily, it should be tightly bagged prior to tossing in the trash.


A catch-all for a wide variety of plastics, including BPA, polycarbonate and bio-based plastics. 

Most cannot be recycled, but bio-based plastics can sometimes be composted. Check your local municipality for specific instructions in your area.

What Types of Paper Can Be Recycled?

Most types of paper, including newspaper, cardboard, white or colored office paper, books, magazines and catalogs can be recycled. Paper that's been laminated or treated with plastic or wax coating, or paper used to package food with food waste, should go to the landfill.

Most municipal curbside programs will pick up paper and cardboard as long as it is clean. Paper that is dirty or has any kind of food particles can contaminate the rest of the paper during the sorting process. 

Cardboard Mixed Paper Plain Paper

Compost or Recycle: Do You Know the Difference?
Have you ever needed to throw something away and were faced with these choices: Landfill, Compost, Recycle? In case you weren't exactly sure what to do, here's a quick guide.

Landfill: Materials for a landfill are nonrenewable, one-use-only garbage.
Compost: These items can be broken down naturally by decomposition by bacteria or small organisms. The resulting organic material can be reused as soil or fertilizer.
Recycle: A manufacturing process that takes an existing material and converts it into a completely new product. Recyclable material is re-useable.

What Types of Glass Can Be Recycled?

The advantage of glass is that once it’s manufactured the first time from sand and limestone, it can be recycled indefinitely without degrading. Here are some common symbols you will find on products made from glass.

Most glass can be recycled as long as it’s clean. All glass should be thoroughly washed and rinsed before it is sent for recycling.

Mixed Glass Clear Glass Green Glass

Whether you're initiating a large recycling project at your company or just trying to sort out your household waste, recycling education is an important step. Understanding what the many recycling symbols represent and knowing how to recycle in your community is a great start.

Learn about more sustainable practices you can embrace at your facility.

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.