Recycling Symbols vs Plastic Resin Codes – They Don’t Mean the Same Thing

recycling resin codes and colorful bins
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

Sometimes it seems like everything in the modern-day consists of some sort of plastic component — perhaps because to a massive extent it does? After all, plastic does account for the third-highest source of waste globally. The lightweight, durable and versatile material, with its inexpensive production costs makes it one of the highest utilised materials in the market. Its versatility along with its inexpensiveness makes it a crowd favourite, becoming a central material to many industries; from automotive, textile, manufacturing to packaging industries. 

What does plastic pollution look like in Southeast Asia?

The total volume of plastic waste simply just grows in line with the increases in global population and per capita consumption. In a 2019 study commissioned by WWF, Malaysia in itself is recorded to hold the highest annual per capita plastic use, at 16.78 kg per person in Southeast Asia. When we look at it in terms of plastic waste, Malaysia ranks the second-highest in the overall generation of plastic waste combined with the consumption of single-use plastic. If that wasn’t enough to call for reason and reflection, Malaysia is also one of the world’s largest importers of plastic waste, since 2017. 

All these elements combined can bring forth massive challenges for the country’s waste management system. With the extensive volume of material being deployed in our packaging, cars, toys, home goods, food utensils, and more — just as much of this material, if not more, are also scattered across our streets, clogging up our waterways, and becoming an imminent threat to our marine life. 

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However, a large extent of this plastic waste can and should be readily recycled. In studies done by National Geographic, over 91% of plastic has never even been recycled. The production of plastic in mass quantities, over the last six decades, advanced so rapidly that it has created waste accumulating to several billion metric tons — mostly in the form of disposable products that end up in our trash cans on a daily basis. If that seems like an incomprehensible quantity, well… that’s because it is. 

Now, let’s get down to the reasoning behind this massive accumulation. The various different rules and symbols put under plastic products can be a cause for confusion for consumers to figure out the meaning behind each recycling symbol and how to recycle it. Not all plastic is recyclable and there is a difference between, Resin Identification Codes (RIC) and the Recycling Symbol—Regardless of how similar the symbols might look. 

How to differentiate the recycling symbols from the plastic resin codes

To combat this confusion it is is first important to gain an understanding of the origins of both the recycling symbols and the plastic resin codes. We are all aware of the universal recycling symbol and have most likely come across it on the products or packaging we use daily. The three folded arrows that form a triangle, with the head of each arrow pointing to the tail of the next — was designed in 1970 by Gary Anderson, a student at the University of Southern California, as part of a nationwide contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America (CCA).

This contest was an initiative started as a response to World Earth Day. With the rise in consumer awareness and environmentalism, the CCA not only wanted to develop a new label for recycled and recyclable products but to also raise awareness about recycling.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Entered by many but won by Gary Anderson, this design contest then went on to bring unto the world, one of the most distinct symbols of the 20th century. The original design consisted of an inverted triangle, however, the symbol was later rotated to the pyramid-like orientation we all know and see today.

Nearly 10 years later, in 1988, the Society of Plastics Institute (SPI) unfolded their own system of codes and symbols, in order to better facilitate the sorting of plastics. The original Resin Identification Codes (RIC) symbol consisted of the three arrows that formed a triangle with a single number in the centre. The numbers one through seven represented the type of plastic material used; for example, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) or Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). 

The SPI stated that the purpose of the code was to, “Provide a consistent national system to facilitate recycling of post-consumer plastics.” The system has since been adopted by communities that implement recycling programs, as a means to assist in sorting plastics. 

Recycling Symbol vs Plastic Resin Codes

So what’s the difference between the recycling symbol and the plastic resin codes? The recycling symbol represents Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It is a consummate representation of recycling. While the plastic resin code is a representation of the type of plastic used so it can be more easily identified and recycled or disposed of accordingly.

What are the Different Plastic Recycling Codes?

Plastic Number 1 – PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)- Recyclable 

PET plastic is the most widely recycled plastic. It is commonly found on single-use clear plastic bottles, that should be rinsed and dried before collection.

Plastic Number 2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)- Recyclable 

HDPE is long-lasting, durable and less prone to deterioration. Plastic Number 2 is safe to be reused and is widely accepted for recycling depending on the product. Commonly found in the form of milk jugs, juice bottles, trash can liners and yoghurt containers. They should be rinsed and dried before collection.  

Plastic Number 3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)-  Non-recyclable 

Plastic number 3 also known as PVC is intended for single-use. PVC can break down into dangerous chemicals like vinyl chloride and is considered to be the most environmentally damaging plastic. This type of plastic is typically found in detergent bottles, cooking oil bottles as well as cling film to name a few. Although PVC plastics are not widely accepted by curbside recycling programs, they may be accepted at some recycling facilities. 

Plastic Number 4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)- Non-recyclable 

LDPE is a reusable form of plastic and is commonly found in food film as well as squeezable bottles. This form of plastic is usually considered to be difficult to recycle, and may not be recyclable at curbside recycling programs. However, they may be accepted at some recycling facilities. 

Plastic Number 5 – PP (Polypropylene)- Recyclable 

Plastic number 5 is safe to reuse and are usually found in the form of takeout containers, plates/bowls, ketchup bottles and cutlery. PP is typically accepted for recycling by curbside recycling programs. 

Plastic Number 6 – PS (Polystyrene)- Non-recyclable

PS is a cheap and lightweight form of plastic. Plastic number 6 is meant for single-use purposes and come in the form of foamy takeaway packaging, styrofoam and meat trays as well as CD cases and yoghurt cups. PS plastic is not typically accepted for recycling due to its lightweight and how costly it can be to recycle. 

Plastic Number 7 – Other (Acrylic, Nylon, Fiberglass, Miscellaneous)- Non-recyclable 

Plastic number 7 are types of plastic that do not fall anywhere in groups 1-6. These plastics vary in resin and chemical makeup and are non-recyclable. Typically they come in the form of CDs, nylon, fibreglass, bioplastics, composite plastics or plastic-coated paper.

It is good to be informed about the different resin codes and what they mean. As consumers, we should be actively aware of the products we buy and the impact they can have on our environment. Not all plastic is recyclable and we should make an active effort in reducing our individual carbon footprint. Separating our waste may seem troublesome and extensive addition to our daily lives, but it goes a long way in ensuring that our materials are properly disposed of and taken care of.

Beyond Bins is Biji-biji Initiative’s flagship circular economy campaign that recycles plastic waste into products, helping underprivileged communities generate alternative income. Find out more about our initiative here.

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