Standard recycling symbols: What do they mean?

06 August 2020

If you’ve ever found yourself confused by the recycling symbols you find printed on various kinds of paper, plastic or glass packaging, you’re not alone. With an array of instructions and numbers, it can be difficult to figure out what to do with different materials.

If you want to make an impact with your recycling habits, it’s important to know what can and cannot go in each bin. Contamination and improper disposal can cause a lot of items to wind up in landfill unnecessarily.

The first step towards proper recycling is to decode the symbols you encounter. Find out what they mean here.

Pay attention to the recycling symbols on product packaging, and learn how to properly dispose of different items.

The Australasian Recycling Label

When you want to decide what to do with a particular item, the first symbols you should look for are those of the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL). The ARL is composed of a series of different symbols that each refers to a different part of the packaging.

These are the easiest recycling instructions to understand because they use clear instructions to tell you which parts of the packaging can be recycled. The ARL symbols will also point out which items may be recycled under specific circumstances and which parts need to go to the landfill.

In the ARL, symbols include either the traditional three-arrow recycling sign or a small icon of a rubbish bin. Each symbol will be accompanied by short banners with a small amount of text above and possibly below them. Banners above the symbols indicate the part of the packaging to which a symbol refers. For instance, there might be separate symbols for a bottle and its cap. Banners below the symbols will appear only with the ‘conditionally recyclable’ symbol, which we’ll explore in more detail below.


'Recyclable' symbol
The 'recyclable' label is the traditional three-arrow recycling symbol in which the arrows are solidly filled in, not outlined. If you see this icon, check the text in the banner above it to find out what’s recyclable. That item can be separated from the others and simply placed in your kerbside recycling bin.

'Conditionally recyclable' symbol
The 'conditionally recyclable' symbol looks like the 'recyclable' symbol, except the arrows are not filled in. If you see these outlined arrows, look to the banner below them for more information. You may have to do something to that particular item in order to make it recyclable, like folding or flattening it. You can check the Australasian Recycling Label website for more information about these instructions.

This label may also ask you to 'check locally'. To do so, consult the Recycling Near You website and enter your location.

'Not recyclable' symbol
Items with this label will have an image of a small rubbish bin instead of the recycling symbol. Separate the specified components from the others and toss them away instead of attempting to recycle them. 

Recycling numbers for plastics

There are several different kinds of plastic used in commercial packaging, and many of them are not universally accepted by recycling programs. As such, in order to determine if you can recycle different products at home or in your workplace, you may have to examine the plastic numbers you find on product labels. This is especially true for items that display the ‘conditionally recyclable’ symbol mentioned above.

According to a blog published by the University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute, here’s what those different numbers mean. The post’s authors point out that numbers one and two are accepted at most places, but you should check with your local council to be sure.

  1. Polyethylene terephthalate
  2. High-density polyethylene
  3. Polyvinyl chloride
  4. Low-density polyethylene
  5. Polypropylene
  6. Polystyrene
  7. Mixed plastics

Sort your recyclables based on their labelling.

Go beyond kerbside pickup with private recycling programs

It’s important to note that making use of private recycling programs can help you further reduce the amount of waste you generate. Depending on your area, many of the soft plastics mentioned above may not be eligible for kerbside pickup, but some of them may be returned to the store or to a private organisation like TerraCycle. Here’s what you need to know about these programs.

At Woolworths and Coles, many soft plastics such as wrappers from bread, confectionary, toilet paper or frozen vegetables can be recycled by returning them to the store and depositing them in the appropriately labelled REDcycle bin. Look for the ‘conditionally recyclable’ symbol with instructions to return the item to your store. This may be accompanied by a large REDcycle logo. Some items without this label may still be recyclable, so check out the REDcycle website for more information.

TerraCycle is dedicated to eliminating waste by recycling or upcycling items many people had previously disregarded as unusable. If you see their label, which looks like the infinity symbol or a sideways ‘8’, this icon indicates that the product contains material recycled by TerraCycle.

This label does not necessarily indicate that TerraCycle will accept the returned packaging. Instead, take a look at all of their free collection programs, many of which include in-store drop-off while others require you to ship them. Some current programs include collections for bread bag closures, toothbrushes and disposable pens. The good news is that TerraCycle will likely pay for the shipping!

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