What Do Those Recycling Symbols and Codes Mean?

iStock.com/ChrisSteer
iStock.com/ChrisSteer

Earth Day is here again, serving as an annual reminder of the need to reduce, reuse, and recycle our way to a better planet.

When it comes to the last part of that familiar three-”R” mantra, most people know enough to separate certain items from the rest of their garbage, but much of our modern recycling routine remains a mystery. From the recycling symbol itself to what those numbers on plastic containers actually mean, there's a lot you can learn from your trash before it becomes someone else's treasure.

An International Symbol With An Earthy Origin

The universal recycling symbol—three folded arrows that form a triangle, with the head of one arrow pointing to the tail of the next—was created in 1970 by University of Southern California student Gary Anderson as part of a contest tied to the very first Earth Day. Each arrow of the design represents one of the steps in the recycling process: collecting the recyclable goods after use, breaking them down and reforming them, and then packaging new products in the containers.

Originally designed as an inverted triangle, the symbol was later rotated to the pyramid-like orientation commonly used now.

The Number Game

The American Society of Plastics Industry first began using numbers inside the recycling symbols on plastic containers in 1988 as a way to assist with sorting them. The "Resin Identification Code" uses seven numbers to identify the type of synthetic material used to manufacture the container, with the higher numbers representing less commonly used plastics.

Here's a primer on each of the codes:

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE/PET)
Usually accompanied by the letters "PETE" or "PET," this resin is generally used for soda bottles and other containers for edible and non-edible goods. When it's not being used to manufacture containers, you might recognize it by another name: polyester. (Yes, it's the stuff that insulates your jackets.) It's also one of the most widely accepted forms of plastic in curbside recycling programs, though the amount of useable material available for new products after breaking down this plastic is relatively small.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
The second most widely used resin for plastic bottles, HDPE is a stiff, strong material with a high resistance to chemicals, which has made it the go-to plastic for food items like milk and juice, as well as household cleaners and trash bags. It's also easy to break down in the recycling process and easy to reform, making it one of the most efficient consumer plastics. Most curbside recycling programs have no problem with accepting products made from this plastic.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
First discovered in the 19th century, PVC is commonly used in building materials today—especially pipes and plumbing material—due to its strength and chemical resistance (although it's occasionally used for some household products). It has a nasty habit of releasing highly carcinogenic toxins into the atmosphere when it's burned, so recycling is a significantly less appealing option for PVC disposal, and it's usually not accepted by curbside recycling programs.

4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
This plastic is becoming more common today, especially for manufacturing squeeze bottles and grocery bags. Plastics made from LDPE are usually very strong, and they're regularly used as sealants because of this quality. While they weren't included in curbside recycling programs at first, plastics made from LDPE are now becoming more commonly accepted.

5. Polypropylene (PP)
Regarded as one of the “safest” plastics produced today, PP is generally used for squeezable bottles, bottle caps, and straws. Along with LDPE, it's also used for food-storage containers that can be reused over time. It has an extremely high melting point, so it's one of the best consumer plastics for items that will be exposed to heat. Like LDPE, it's becoming more common for curbside recycling programs to accept items made from this plastic.

6. Polystyrene (PS)
More commonly known as styrofoam, this type of plastic is not only notoriously difficult to recycle, but it's also been shown to leach dangerous toxins over time into anything packaged in it—and even greater amounts of toxins when it's burned. This is the resin usually found in disposable serving trays, egg cartons, and cups, and it's rarely accept by curbside recycling programs due to the danger it poses and the difficulty of recycling it. Basically, this is the worst of the bunch.

7. Everything Else
There are countless other plastics, but very few of them are easily recycled in curbside programs, making this category the catch-all for everything that could conceivably be broken down and reformed, but might be better off reused or reformed in some way that doesn't require a chemical process. This category encompasses everything from bulletproof material to those large water jugs on office coolers, and is rarely included in curbside recycling programs.

Safety In Numbers

For anyone wondering which plastics are safe to reuse in their current form, it's widely accepted that HDPE (2), LDPE (4), and PE (5) can be reused multiple times for edible items, as they're generally resistant to chemicals, haven't been shown to degrade, and don't leach dangerous substances into their contents.

This story first ran in 2013.

Two Eco-Minded Kids in England Are Petitioning McDonald’s and Burger King to Nix Plastic Toys

romrodinka/iStock via Getty Images
romrodinka/iStock via Getty Images

Some kids are not content to wait around while the grown-ups sort out the future of our planet. Two of them, 9-year-old Ella and 7-year-old Caitlin, have launched a petition on Change.org requesting that McDonald’s and Burger King stop giving out plastic toys with their kid’s meals, Thrillist reports.

“Children only play with the plastic toys they give us for a few minutes before they get thrown away and harm animals and pollute the sea,” the British girls wrote on Change.org. “We want anything they give us to be sustainable so we can protect the planet for us and for future generations.” The petition has almost 400,000 signatures so far, and their current goal is to reach 500,000.

McDonald's Happy Meal
McDonald's

Last October, UK environment minister Thérèse Coffey also implored McDonald’s to stop giving out plastic toys, suggesting instead that they develop smartphone-friendly games to accompany the meals. At the time, a UK McDonald’s spokesman acknowledged the importance of reducing plastic waste and cited their promise to switch to paper straws, but countered the assumption that the plastic toys were only used for a few minutes, telling The Telegraph that they “provide many more fun-filled hours at home, too.”

The fast food giant did study the environmental effects of their toys last year and found that they are hard to recycle, since they’re manufactured from various types of plastic. As a result, McDonald’s is researching more Earth-friendly ways to make their toys. A Burger King representative told The Wall Street Journal that it, too, is exploring “alternative toy solutions.”

But according to Ella and Caitlin, “It’s not enough to make recyclable plastic toys—big, rich companies shouldn’t be making toys out of plastic at all.” The young activists themselves recycle as much as they can, and even hung a poster in their window about saving the planet.

You can sign their petition here, and learn how to reduce your own environmental impact.

[h/t Thrillist]

An Underpass for Turtles in Wisconsin Is Saving Dozens of the Little Guys’ Lives

Anthony Cedrone/iStock via Getty Images
Anthony Cedrone/iStock via Getty Images

Why did the turtle cross the road? Because an underground tunnel made it safe to do so.

In 2016, the Wisconsin Departments of Transportation and Natural Resources partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to construct a tunnel beneath Highway 66, hoping to cut down on high turtle mortality rates, reports Robert Mentzer for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The tunnel, with Jordan Pond on one side and wetlands on the other, was a noble venture, but the turtles had no way of knowing it was a crossing point rather than a dark and potentially dangerous hole. So Pete Zani, herpetologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, installed aluminum flashing outside of each opening, which would reflect the sky and let turtles know that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Zani also installed grates above the tunnel to make it less shadowy, and a small cul-de-sac in a nearby piece of the fencing to encourage turtles who had missed the tunnel to turn around.

Zani and his team found that in the first year after construction, 85 percent fewer turtles were killed on the road, and no baby turtles were among the casualties. In the last few years combined, only 40 turtles died, compared to 66 deaths in 2015 alone.

That’s great news for local turtles, of course, and it’s great news for local humans, too. The intersection in question is always busy with truckers, commuters, and families en route to Jordan Pond, and turtle crossing can exacerbate traffic congestion and increase the chance of accidents.

Not all turtles have caught on, however, and it looks like some might never get the memo. Zani found that about 30 percent of snapping turtles and 20 percent of painted turtles make it through the tunnel, and those numbers have been consistent each year since construction. “They either get it or they don’t,” Zani told Wisconsin Public Radio.

Other animals are getting it, too. As part of the experiment, Zani set up a turtle-wrangling program in which students monitored trail cameras for turtle activity outside the underpass. In photos captured by the cameras, they noticed that rodents, mink, skunks, raccoons, and even house cats were traveling by turtle tunnel.

[h/t Wisconsin Public Radio]

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