Recycle symbols & recycle numbers – What do they mean?

You know those little recycling triangles you see on packaging? The ones with the numbers inside? They're everywhere but not many people know what they mean. So what do recycling numbers mean?

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)
  2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  5. Polypropylene (PP)
  6. Polystyrene (PS)
  7. Everything else

Let’s try to make sense of these. We try to reduce plastic where we can but sometimes there are certain foods we need that are sealed in 'those containers'. In your quest to separate your rubbish into the right bins these little cheeky numbers on the packet stop you right in your tracks like an unwanted red traffic light just when you were getting into your cooking flow and had everything simmering nicely. 'What bloody bin does this go into?!' Well here is a guide that will hopefully answer that in future so you can launch it right where it needs to be and get on with your food prep.

It’s a good idea to print the below table out and stick it on your kitchen wall or on the bins themselves if they're high enough to see. That'll stop you putting recyclables into the general landfill waste unknowingly, which then stops it getting into everyone’s cod fillets or a dolphins stomach.

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) - Plastic recycle code 1

These are usually clear plastic drinks bottles which are the most recyclable plastic used. PET is also used in fruit punnets (e.g. strawberries) and in polyester too which are widely recyclable. If you see a number 7 on your package it is recycled by 93% of UK councils so it is best to always put these in your recycle bin.

  1. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – Plastic code 2

This plastic is the thicker stronger plastic used in cleaning product bottles such as bleach or milk cartons. You will often find these in your bathroom too when they are used for shampoo’s or shower gels. These plastics are still collected by 93% of UK councils and although they’re not biodegradable they can be used to make drain pipes, bins or garden furniture. It is also often used as an oil substitute in plastic manufacturing.

plastic bottles recycling UK

  1. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – Plastic code 3

Ah PVC, it is certainly well used for clothing where it can replace leather for those stand out night time outfits. PVC can actually be flexible or rigid depending on its purpose but it is used for drainage pipes, toys, bank cards and window frames. PVC usage is actually in decline and is not generally collected for recycling

  1. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – Plastic code 4

The bad guys of the plastic world. LDPE is mainly used in supermarket plastic bags and drink can rings e.g. six pack rings that you sometimes see wrapped around a turtle on a Greenpeace poster. These 2 plastic items are widely regarded as the most polluting of plastics. Only 5% of the plastic produced in this material can be recycled, which makes it too hard to try for most therefore not generally collected for recycling.

  1. Polypropylene (PP) – Plastic code 5

This one is most used in disposable coffee cups. It softens well so can be used for cup linings, bottle tops and even waterproof clothing. Around 1% of this is recycled so those coffee cups end up in the ocean as they cannot be recycled which is why it’s a good idea to go with reusable cups. This plastic is not collected for recycling.

  1. Polystyrene (PS) – Plastic code 6

Most of us know about this plastic. It is mostly used in packaging for fragile products, takeaway disposable cups and inside bean bags. This plastic is known for being hard to recycle. The balls can potentially be reused in DIY though even if the balls are used for insulation or used inside cushions. However it is not generally collected for recycling though some commercial polystyrene can be collected.

  1. Everything else – No numbers, all other plastics

Other plastics include polycarbonate (roofing). Polyactide (3D printing), acrylic glass (Perspex) and many other plastics. There are also other plastics that are a blend of the above and would fall under this category. A lot of plastics can still be reused in construction but these are not picked up by local councils.


Print this table for your kitchen wall or bin!

Plastic recycle number

Plastic type

Recycle bin?

recycle number 1 PETE

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)


recycle number 2 HDPE

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)


Recycle number 3 - PVC

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

No – But try to reuse

Plastic Recycle number 4

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

No – But try to reuse

Plastic recycle number 5 PP

Polypropylene (PP)

No – But try to reuse

Plastic Recycle number 6 PS

Polystyrene (PS)

No – But try to reuse

Plastic recycle number 7 - Other

Everything else – No numbers

No – But try to reuse

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