What Do Those Recycling Symbols Mean, Anyway?


Everyone knows the recycling symbol. First created in 1970, it seems to turn up everywhere these days. But did you know the recycling symbol doesn’t always mean an item is recyclable? In fact, there are multiple recycling symbols, and each has a different meaning. Let’s decipher them:

recycling symbol

1. Recyclable (Sometimes, Some Places)

This symbol doesn’t necessarily mean that an item is always recyclable. It has multiple meanings, and typically means that an item is recyclable somewhere. In other words, it’s possible that it’s recyclable in Stockton, but it’s not definite. Sometimes a recycling symbol will be accompanied by the phrases “please recycle” or “widely recyclable,” which means it is likely that you can recycle it curbside, but you still need to check the recycling guide to ensure it is accepted by our program.

This symbol is also used to indicate that an item is made from recycled materials. In this case, it might have a number in the middle indicating the percentage of recycled materials used to make it. Or it might say “Made from recycled materials.” Items made from recycled materials are sometimes recyclable but sometimes not.

recyclable symbol

2. Made From Recycled Paper

This symbol, the recycling sign over a dark circle, is more specific. Used by paper products such as cardboard and napkins, this symbol means that the item was made from materials that have already been recycled. However, even though it looks like the recyclable symbol, not all products with this symbol can be recycled. Napkins, for example, are end-of-use products, meaning it’s the end of the road for those super-short paper fibers, and you’re going to have to throw them away. Cardboard, however, could still be recycled.

plastic resin code

3. The Plastic Resin Code, or Type of Plastic

Items with this symbol are not necessarily recyclable. The symbol doesn’t stand for recycling at all — it stands for the type of plastic the item is made from. Among all plastics #1-#7, #3 and #7 are rarely recyclable. The other types of plastic are more commonly recycled, but it depends on the local recycling program.

BPI logo

4. Compostable (But Probably Not in Your Backyard)

An item carrying this symbol is compostable in an industrial compost facility. However, not all industrial compost programs accept all materials, so you will still have to check with the facility you are bringing materials to. Please note that compostable items are not recyclable. Also, do not try to compost items with this symbol at home unless the label says you can. Industrial facilities can handle items that might never break down in a backyard compost.

how to recycle

5. The How2Recycle Label

The How2Recycle label is becoming more common, and it’s carefully regulated to provide you with accurate information. It indicates if an item is recyclable widely, in limited areas, not at all, or if it needs to be dropped off at a store. Since up to 40 percent of U.S. households might not be able to recycle items designated as “widely recyclable,” it’s wise to check our local guide no matter what.

The How2Recycle label also tells you what materials the item is made from, which parts can be recycled and if you need to prepare the item for recycling, such as by rinsing it out. For example, check out the instructions on the frozen food package below.

how to recycle

It’s helpful to have these symbols memorized, but even if you do, they’ll never be as accurate as our local program information. Remember that you can look an item up in our recycling guide at any time, even from your phone. Try to recycle everything you can — but don’t assume that you should toss something into your recycling just because it has a symbol on it.