What Does the Recycling Symbol Mean, Anyway?

recycling symbols


Everyone knows the recycling symbol. It looks like three arrows chasing each other in the shape of a triangle, and it seems to turn up everywhere these days.

But did you know the recycling symbol doesn’t mean an item is always recyclable? In fact, there are many kinds of recycling symbols, and a lot of them don’t mean “recyclable” at all.

This is a problem because usually, when people see one of these recycling symbols, they automatically think, “I can recycle this!” and toss the item into the recycling. But the chasing arrows don’t always mean something is recyclable, and recycling the wrong items causes contamination in our recycling stream. Contamination reduces how much of our materials actually get recycled, and it makes recycling more expensive.

In honor of America Recycles Day, we’re going to debunk the meaning behind the recycling symbol. So let’s take a closer look at what all these recycling symbols really mean:

recycling symbol

1. Recyclable (Sometimes, Some Places)

Meaning #1: An item with this symbol on it is recyclable somewhere. This doesn’t mean an item is recyclable in San José!
Recycling programs all have different sorting systems and different technologies available to them. Because of all these differences, there are virtually no recycling rules that are true across the state or the country.

The manufacturers that use this symbol on their products have no way of knowing what the rules are in every community. They just know whether it’s technically possible to recycle something or not. A lot of times, it is! But that doesn’t mean we can recycle it in San José.

How can you find out whether or not something is recyclable here? Look up the item in our Recycling Guide.

Meaning #2: This item was made from recycled materials.
In this use of the recycling symbol, you might see a number in the middle that has the percentage of recycled materials used to make it. It might also say “Made from recycled materials.” This doesn’t mean the item is recyclable! Items made from recycled materials are sometimes recyclable, sometimes not. You can find out whether we can recycle it in San José by looking it up in our Recycling Guide.

recyclable symbol

2. Made From Recycled Materials

The recycling symbol over a dark circle means that the item was made from recycled materials.

Even though it looks like the recyclable symbol, many products with this symbol cannot be recycled. For example, this symbol appears on a lot of recycled paper products, but paper can only be recycled so many times. Items such as napkins and paper towels are end-of-use products, meaning it’s the end of the recycling road for them. Their super-short paper fibers can’t be recycled anymore, so you need to throw them away. Cardboard, however, can still be recycled again, so you can put that in your recycling cart.

plastic resin code

3. Plastic Resin Code, or Type of Plastic

This symbol doesn’t stand for recycling at all — it’s a manufacturing code that stands for the type of plastic an item is made from. Items with this symbol are not necessarily recyclable!

In San José, we’re lucky to be able to recycle all rigid plastics #1-#7, so if you see any of these numbers appear in the resin code, you can usually put that item in your recycling. Some exceptions to this rule are foam plastic #6 and compostable plastics, which are sometimes labeled as plastic #7 or PLA.

how to recycle

4. The How2Recycle Label

The How2Recycle label is a series of recycling symbols created by an organization called the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This label is becoming more common, and it’s carefully regulated to provide you with information that’s as accurate as possible, given all the differences between local recycling programs.

The How2Recycle label will tell you if an item is recyclable widely, in limited areas, not at all, or if it needs to be dropped off at a store. However, by their definitions, “widely recyclable” can mean only 60% of U.S. households, so you should check San José’s Recycling Guide no matter what.

If an item has multiple pieces, the How2Recycle label will tell you what material each piece is made from and which parts can be recycled. If you need to prepare the item for recycling, it will tell you how. To see an example, check out the instructions on the frozen food package below.

how to recycle

BPI logo

5. Compostable (But Not in Your Backyard)

OK, so this isn’t technically a recycling symbol, but we still wanted to include it in this list! This symbol means the item is compostable in a commercial composting facility. However, not all commercial composting facilities accept all materials. In San José, toss BPI-certified materials in the trash.

Additionally, do not try to compost items with this symbol at home unless the label says you can. Most of these items require high amounts of heat and pressure to break down, so they will never break down in a backyard compost.

Please note: Compostable items are not recyclable! If something can be composted, that means it can break down into tiny pieces that can be digested by little critters such as worms and bacteria and recomposed into new organic material: soil! Recycling is a very different process.

Want more recycling and waste-related content? Subscribe to our bi-monthly e-newsletter, The Loop, for the most current recycling, garbage and waste reduction news: bit.ly/TheLoop_signup