Most of the plastic products we purchase have a symbol on them that is familiar. It looks like a recycling symbol (three bent arrows forming a triangle) with a number inside. This symbol does not depict the number of times that the plastic has been recycled, as is commonly believed.
Instead, the symbol is used to tell recyclers and waste management handlers what the plastic is made from. Each number represents the chemical composition of the plastic and, therefore, how it needs to be recycled or disposed of. Here is a breakdown of what the number symbols on plastic products mean.
1. PET – Polyethylene terephthalate
The symbol with a 1 represents PET plastic; one of the most common types used for food and beverage packaging. The vast majority of soft drink and water bottles are made from PET plastic. This type of plastic is widely recycled in South Africa and its recycling rates are growing year-on-year.
PET is recycled into new bottles and containers for the food and beverage industry. It takes about 30 000 PET bottles to make one tonne of recycled PET plastic. PET can also be recycled into hollow-fibre filling for duvets, jackets, pillows and sleeping bags. Green PET bottles are commonly recycled into building insulation while brown PET bottles often end up as Plastiwood (fake wood for benches and floors).
2. HDPE – High-density polyethylene
The symbol with a 2 depicts HDPE plastic – a hardened plastic used to manufacture a variety of containers. HDPE is commonly used for bottles of cleaning products, cosmetics and toiletries. It is also used to make milk bottles, crates and plastic buckets.
HDPE can be recycled in South Africa. Its hard properties make it ideal for plastic products that will endure wear and tear. It is mainly recycled into plastic bins, buckets, detergent containers, fencing posts, pipes and plastic furniture.
3. PVC – Polyvinyl chloride
The symbol with a 3 is used on PVC plastic products. This type of plastic is difficult to recycle so most facilities in South Africa do not accept PVC waste. This is one of the reasons why PVC is being phased out and replaced by PET products. Try to avoid buying plastic products with the 3 symbol. If it’s unavoidable, however, dispose of PVC plastic products with ordinary refuse as recycling facilities won’t process it.
4. LDPE – Low-density polyethylene
The symbol with number 4 represents LDPE plastic or soft plastic. Products such as grocery bags, packets, plastic sheeting and squeezable bottles are made from LDPE. This moldable plastic is recyclable in South Africa and is commonly turned into bin liners, plastic sheets, soft containers and construction film.
5. PP – Polypropylene
The symbol with a 5 is printed on PP plastic – a temperature-resistant plastic that has a wide range of uses. Polypropylene is used to manufacture ice cream tubs, straws, microwave dishes, kettles, garden furniture, lunch boxes and bottle caps. PP is recyclable and is often used to make clothing pegs, bins, pipes, oil funnels, car battery plastic and canteen trays.
6. PS – Polystyrene
The symbol with a 6 depicts polystyrene plastic. There are two main types of PS; a soft, expanded polystyrene used to make packing fillers and takeaway food containers and a high-impact, hardened PS used for coat hangers and yoghurt cups. Polystyrene is recyclable in South Africa – it is used to create curtain rails, skirting boards, rulers, seedling trays and picture frames.
The symbol with a 7 represents a variety of other plastic products. Some of these products are made from multiple polymers, which makes them unrecyclable in South Africa. These products should be discarded in a regular bin, not a recycling bin.
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