Plastic symbols explained - PVC - Shorebox

Plastic Symbols Explained

Have you always wondered what those triangles on plastic packaging mean?

They are called “resin identification codes”, and they classify plastics into seven different categories. The plastic symbols were developed back in the 1980s for use within the plastics industry. Although they were never intended for consumers, they were administered to plastic packaging in 2008. No wonder they leave most of us scratching our heads.

However, it’s important to be aware of the plastic symbols. They reveal really important information about your plastic item — most critically, they tell you if it’s recyclable, safe to reuse, and if there’s a risk of it leaching chemicals.

Read on to get to grips with plastic symbols and learn how they can help you make better informed decisions.

Remember that every council in the UK recycles differently. Check your council’s website to find out which plastic symbols you can recycle.

#1 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

PET is one of the most common plastics used in product packaging. It’s strong yet lightweight, shatterproof, and very cheap. It’s used to make water bottles, as well as packaging for salad dressing, cooking oil, and liquid hand soap, to name a few. 

Can you recycle it?

It’s highly likely — PET is one of the most readily recycled plastics in the UK.

Can you reuse it?

No. PET is intended to be used once. PET can leach antimony, a toxic metalloid, which is linked to diarrhea, muscle and joint pain, and other health effects. Chemical leaching is more likely to occur if you wash PET in the dishwasher or leave it in the sun for a long period of time. Nonetheless, it’s best not to reuse it.

How to avoid it

Ditch single-use plastic bottles for a reusable water bottle. Opt for soap bars over plastic packaged soaps, shower gels, and other household products. If possible, choose products packaged in glass or aluminium instead of plastic.

Shop: Paper-wrapped soap bars



#2 High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

HDPE is a sturdy plastic that’s used to make things like milk bottles, plastic bags, chopping boards, food containers, crates, and bleach bottles. It can withstand extremes of heating or freezing, which is why it’s also used to make garden furniture and waste bins.

Can you recycle it?

Product packaging made from HDPE is widely recycled in the UK.  

Can you reuse it?

There are no known health risks for reusing HDPE. 

How to avoid it

HDPE is so resilient, that it survives in natural environments for hundreds of years. You don’t need to hear it from us that you should replace plastic bags with canvas bags. Consider products made from wood and steel to replace HDPE found around your home, such as wooden chopping boards and steel containers. Of course, don’t replace HDPE unless it is broken beyond repair — keep your items going for as long as you can!

Plastic symbols explained - LDPE - Shorebox


#3 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is most commonly found in industry, where it’s used to make vinyl flooring, hose pipes, medical devices, plumbing, and parts for cars. At home, cling film is made from PVC.

PVC is described as the most toxic plastic. This is partly because it contains bisphenol A (BPA) — a controversial chemical that is used to harden plastic and protect food from bacteria. BPA is an endocrine disruptor, which means it mimics hormones in the body to disrupt normal hormone functioning. 

Some say that the amount of BPA found in consumer goods is safe, whilst others say it can be toxic even in small doses. Either way, it’s important not to heat PVC (e.g. using cling film in the microwave) as this can encourage chemical leaching.

Can you recycle it?

No, PVC is not recycled by councils in the UK. Because of its toxicity, almost all products using PVC require virgin material for their construction. Less than 1% of it is recycled, meaning the majority of it ends up in landfills. 

Read more: The problem with plastic recycling

Can you reuse it?

As we mentioned, PVC contains BPA, so it’s best not to reuse it.

How to avoid it

Cut out cling film for good. Use plates to cover bowls, choose glass and steel for storage containers, or treat yourself to reusable food wraps.

Shop: Beeswax food wraps

Plastic symbols explained - PVC - Shorebox


#4 Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

In product packaging, most types of bags (e.g. bread bags) and wraps (e.g. newspaper wrap) are made from LDPE. Bin liners and dry cleaning bags are also made from LDPE.

Can you recycle it?

Check with your local council, but LDPE is not commonly collected for recycling. However, you can take any LDPE product to be recycled at a carrier bag collection point. These are found in the carparks of most major supermarkets in the UK, including Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, The Co Op and Waitrose.

Read more: Recycling symbols explained

Can you reuse it?

LDPE is not considered toxic, so it’s safe for reuse.

How to avoid it

Take your own produce bag with you to buy unpackaged bread from the supermarket, and opt for unwrapped newspapers and magazines where possible. If you frequent the dry cleaners, request that they don’t cover your clothing in a plastic bag, and take your own suit carrier instead — who knows, you may inspire them to introduce this as policy!

Shop: Produce bags



#5 Polypropylene (PP)

You’ll most likely have a fair amount of PP in your fridge. PP is common in food packaging as it serves as a barrier against moisture and grease. Cereal bags, yoghurt pots, and milk bottle tops are all made from PP. Most Tupperware is also made from PP.

Can you recycle it?

Some councils do, some councils don’t. Many councils’ recycling facilities are not advanced enough to recycle PP as it is made up of a wider variety of polymers than, say, PET.

Can you reuse it?

Yes. Along with categories two and four (HDPE and LDPE), PP is considered safe for reuse and unlikely to leach chemicals.

How to avoid it

Where possible, opt for plastic-free alternatives to PP packaging in your food shop. For example, you could buy yoghurt in glass jars.

Plastic symbols explained - PP - Shorebox


#6 Polystyrene (PS)

PS is so lightweight, that it easily breaks up into smaller pieces. As a result, it’s one of the most common pieces of rubbish found on beaches around the world. This isn’t helped by the fact that PS is commonly used to sell food and drink by the sea, such as fish and chip containers and coffee cups. It’s also used to make packing peanuts to fill shipping boxes. 

Can you recycle it?

It’s very unlikely. PS is not commonly recycled.

Can you reuse it?

It’s not recommended. Studies have found that polystyrene can leach harmful chemicals, especially when heated. 

How to avoid it

Take a reusable coffee cup with you. Encourage companies you regularly shop with to switch to biodegradable packing peanuts. They look just like polystyrene peanuts, but they’re made from natural sources, like wheat or corn starch. As they dissolve in water, they could help tackle a huge source of plastic pollution if we pressure more companies to switch to them!



#7 Other

There’s no complicated name this time. Category seven is a catch-all for any type of plastic that doesn’t fit into categories one to six. These types of plastics include nylon, acrylic, and polycarbonate. Some of these plastics, such as polycarbonate, contain BPA. 

The plastic symbols in a nutshell

Plastic symbols 1 & 2 (PET & HDPE) are the most readily recycled in the UK. It’s also worth checking if you can recycle category 5 (PP). You can recycle LDPE at supermarkets.

Plastic symbols 2, 4 & 5 (HDPE, LDPE & PP) are the safest types of plastics — they’re unlikely to leach chemicals and are safe to reuse.

Plastic symbols 1, 3, 6 & 7 (PET, PVC, PS & Other) are the most toxic types of plastic and aren’t safe for reuse.

When considering plastic, it’s useful to think about the three R’s — how can you reduce, reuse, or recycle it? Even though plastic can be recycled, we can’t rely on recycling to solve our problems with waste. Among many reasons is the fact that plastic can only be recycled a few times before it has to be discarded anyway.

Some plastics can be safely reused, but the use cases are limited. For instance, there aren’t many reasons for reusing LDPE (used to make bread bags).

Ultimately, the best thing you can do for the environment is to replace and reduce plastic where you can. We’re here to help. Discover alternatives to plastic each month with our plastic-free subscription box. Get 10% off your first box with the code FIRSTBOX to give it a go!

Shop plastic-free essentials on our plastic-free shop.

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