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The Ultimate Guide to Recycling Symbols: What Do They Actually Mean?

The Ultimate Guide to Recycling Symbols: What Do They Actually Mean?

So we all know that we should recycle. But, hands up — who still has no idea what they can or can’t put in the green bin? Yep, it can be a minefield. And the problem is, one wrong move can result in your whole efforts being thrown out — literally. In 2018, councils in the UK dumped or incinerated almost 500,000 tonnes of 'contaminated' recycling

While there’s still room for improvement, the recycling symbols on packaging can really help you decode what you can and can’t recycle. But what do they actually mean? Our handy guide is here to make life easier for you. 

Widely Recycled

This is one of the most commonly used recycling symbols. You’ll find it on packaging that’s accepted by at least 75% of local authorities in the UK. 

Widely Recycled - Rinse

If you see this symbol, you’ll need to give your packaging a rinse before it’s chucked away. This is so it doesn’t contaminate anything else in the bin or attract vermin. Yuck!

Widely Recycled - Rinse, Lid On 

This symbol is usually found on a glass jar. They’ll need to be rinsed with their lids left on — even if the lids are made of metal. This is because if not fastened securely, the lids could slip through small gaps during the sorting process. If you keep the lid on, it’s more likely to be recycled elsewhere.

Widely Recycled - Flatten, Cap On

Flatten: If you see this, it means that by flattening your plastic bottle or drinks carton, you’ll have more space in your bin. But that’s not all — less air in your bin makes transporting your recycling bin more energy efficient. And that can only be a good thing. 

Cap On: Sometimes if a bottle lid is too small, it can fall through the gaps during the sorting process. By keeping the cap on the bottle, there’s a higher chance of all parts getting recycled without the risk of contamination.

Bottle - Widely Recycled, Sleeve - Not Yet Recycled

When you see this symbol, you might need to remove the outer sleeve so that it can be successfully recycled. Alternatively, the sleeve might not be recyclable — you might need to put it in the waste bin instead. If it doesn’t say either way, you’re okay to leave the sleeve on. 

Check Locally

Does what it says on the tin. This symbol shows that your packaging is recycled by 20-75% of local councils, so check before you recycle. 

Not Yet Recycled

The symbol we all dread. This means that your packaging is collected by less than 20% of local authorities, so it will probably need to go in the waste bin. 

The Green Dot

One of the more confusing signs — this means that the producer of the packaging has made some kind of financial contribution to recycling services in Europe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean that the packaging can be recycled, so it’s a good idea to check first. 

Tidy Man

Don’t litter! This is part of the Keep Britain Tidy initiative to remind you to get rid of your waste properly.

Mobius Loop

With an awesome name, this recognisable symbol shows that an item is capable of being recycled. 

Paper, Card and Wood

This is the Forest Stewardship Council logo, and indicates that the packaging has been responsibly sourced from well-managed forests in accordance with the rules of the FSC.


If packaging is made from recycled aluminium, you’ll see this symbol. This includes foil too!



This symbol highlights when products are compostable – they need to be popped into your garden waste as they’re not allowed in a normal waste bin. 

Plastic symbols

Symbol 1: PETG or PETE

PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is probably the most commonly used plastic on single-use bottles. It’s easily recyclable and can be reused to make a range of items, including containers and furniture.


Symbol 2: HDPE

High density polyethylene is a versatile plastic that’s typically used to make milk bottles, shampoo bottles and yoghurt tubs (amongst other things). It’s commonly recycled by curbside programs — this is plastic we like.


Symbol 3: PVC or Vinyl 

PVC and vinyl are both cheap materials to manufacture but can result in the release of highly dangerous dioxins, so can’t be recycled. Basically, avoid like the plague. 

Symbol 4: LDPE

Low density polyethylene is usually found in shopping bags or bin sacks. While it’s flexible, it’s not often recycled. It’s not all bad though, as it can be turned into floor tiles and shipping envelopes. 


Symbol 5: PP

Durable, strong and lightweight, polypropylene is great for holding hot liquids. We’re not quite there yet, but this plastic is becoming more widely recycled around the UK. 


Symbol 6: PS

Styrene plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle and is firmly on the hit lists of environmentalists. It’s 98% air, which isn’t any good to anyone. 


Symbol 7: Other

When plastic resins don’t have a category, they’re lumped into this one. Number 7 represents polycarbonate, there are usually multi-layered plastics which makes them impossible to recycle completely and need a special partner to do so. It has been found that they are also a hormone disruptors, so really should be avoided at all costs!  

 Words by Lorna McGachie, a freelance sustainability blogger. Photo from @pinterest