What Does the Recycling Symbol Mean?

April 28, 2009 at 12:32 am 1 comment

We typically see the the Recycling triangle/multi-arrow symbol in a variety of ways on a multitude of product containers – from disposable water bottles to cardboard boxes, yet there are over 40 variants of the symbol (that we could find) and many have different meanings…and then there are the ones with numbers in the middle.  There is one MAJOR difference between the symbols – one means Recyclable and the other Recycled, the distinction being that one product has the POTENTIAL of being used again and the other is already made from recycled materials.  Being aware of these symbols meanings AND your local communities laws for what can be recycled and what cannot is critical to an effective recycling system both locally and nationally.


Below we’ve collected a list of facts that will help understand the Recycle triangle and how to decipher its purpose.  We also included some links…


…to helpful articles, sites regarding the topic in general, and sites of organizations that mandate standards/laws/practices for makers of recycled/recyclable products.

1. Created circa 1970 by Gary Anderson, then 23, in response to the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America‘s contest for art and design students at high schools and colleges to raise awareness of Earth Day and environmental issues.

2. A product marked with either symbol  (seen below) can be recycled if the regulations and/or ordnances of the local community provide for its collection. Although the symbols are used on products distributed nationwide, the laws governing collection of these products for the purpose of recycling are determined locally and vary widely from locality to locality.

r113. The display of the symbols is governed by the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims.

4. Plastic bottles, containers and packaging typically have a symbol that indicates the type of plastic resin from which the item was made. The resin coding system was introduced in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). The symbols imprinted on plastic bottles, containers and packaging are a variation of the original three wide mobius arrows. They have been modified to a simpler and thinner version. SPI has promulgated a guide for the correct usage of the symbols.

resinindicator5. Some articles worth reading: “Background information on Recycling Symbols” (PDF), Resin identification code, The Green Dot: standards of use, Gary Anderson Has Been Found, and Comprehensive article about recycling symbols and their meanings.

There is A LOT of information to absorb about this topic in order to make recycling of products in your community more effective.  We suggest starting with learning what the different graphical elements mean (black arrow, white arrow, fat, thin, et cetera) and then move on to the complexities of what different numbers represent.  We made this article brief so it would be a starter course – we intend to write about the individual topics in different articles.  If we missed something that you feel we should be shouting from the roof tops, please write to us using the comment system below and we’ll get back to you as quickly as we can by publishing your question and more information here on the blog.



Entry filed under: Green Living Ideas, reusable water bottles. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sarang  |  September 17, 2009 at 8:34 am

    What do those number inside the triangle indicate….?
    Is it so that we should not use bottles with higher number…..?

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