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Plastic Recycling: What the “Chasing Arrows” Logo Really Means

Plastic Recycling: What the “Chasing Arrows” Logo Really Means

There is a good chance that you are somewhat familiar with the well-recognized “chasing arrows” logo that can be found on most plastic products and containers. The logo was created by the US Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in 1988 when they introduced the Resin Identification Code (RIC). The goal of the RIC was to facilitate the identification and recycling of different types of plastic by providing a common framework across the plastic industry. The RIC logos consist of arrows cycling clockwise to form a triangle with a number enclosed in the middle. The number – from 1 to 7 – refer to the type of plastic and gives precious information regarding its recyclability:

    Plastic #1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) – water bottles, food jars, soft drinks…

    Plastic #2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – milk jugs, water / soda bottles, shampoo bottles, detergent and household cleaners, shopping bags…

    Plastic #3 – Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, Vinyl) – blister packs, clamshell containers, pipes, window frames…

    Plastic #4 – Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – film packaging, shrink wrap, squeezable bottles, coating for paper containers and cups…

    Plastic #5 – Polypropylene (PP) – medicine bottles, bottle caps, reusable plastic containers…

    Plastic #6 – Polystyrene (PS) – food service items, takeout containers, foam packaging, packing peanuts…

    Plastic #7 – Other such as acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, polylactic acid, and bioplastics.

Although the goal of the RIC was to facilitate recycling, the chasing arrows symbol misled many people to believe the presence of the logo on a container was synonym of recyclability. It is not. The recyclability of a specific type of plastic will depend on where you live and of the available capabilities of the local recycling centers.

Plastic #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) are the only two resins that are widely accepted by local curbside recycling programs in the United States. Plastic #3 (PVC) is not commonly recycled or recyclable due to the combination of PVC and non-PVC material sometimes used in the resin. Plastic #4 (LDPE) is recyclable but often not accepted in curbside programs in its film form. Plastic #5 (PP) is a resin similar to #2 (HDPE) with a great recycling potential and an increasing number of curbside programs are now accepting it. While plastic #6 (PS) is recyclable, most curbside programs do not accept it. Several cities like San Francisco have implemented a ban on polystyrene foams, requiring it to be replaced with less-hazardous, compostable, or readily recyclable products. As the catch-all category, plastic #7 can refer to multi-layered combinations of plastics, acrylonitrile styrene (AS/SAN), and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), as well as bioplastics. For this reason, most curbside programs do not accept plastic #7.

The RIC system was revised in 2013, moving away from the “chasing arrows” triangle to a solid triangle. However, even 5 years after the publication of the updated graphic, many plastic manufacturers still use the “chasing arrows” version.  

What can you do?

Always check if a specific type of plastic is accepted by your local curbside recycling program by:

    - checking the website of your local government, or

    - using the recycle search engines available on Earth911 and Keep America Beautiful

Reduce the amount of plastic you use by:

    - replacing single use utensils and cups with reusable or compostable options

    - eliminating single-use plastic straws with metal or reusable plastic options

Be mindful of overpackaged items when shopping and promoting brands that take initiatives to reduce unnecessary packaging.

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