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When sorting your recyclables, do you find yourself puzzled by the various recycling symbols on the packaging? This article cuts through the confusion, providing clear explanations of the most common recycling symbols in the UK, such as the Mobius Loop, the Green Dot, and the Plastic Resin Identification Codes. We’ll guide you on what these symbols mean, how they differ, and how to act to ensure you recycle correctly and effectively.

Understanding the Recycling Symbol Landscape

Current estimates show that 41.1 Million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste is generated annually in the UK alone. The latest figures show that in 2021, just 44.4% of plastic waste generated across the UK was recycled.

Recycling symbols are tools that guide us on how different types of packaging can be recycled. Each recycling symbol conveys information about disposal, recyclability, and the presence of recycled materials within the packaging.

Some recycling symbols like the Mobius Loop, the Green Dot, and Plastic Resin Identification Codes might seem confusing. Here’s what the different recycling symbols mean:

  1. The Mobius Loop symbolises that an object can be recycled but does not assure the disposer that it will be accepted in all recycling systems. Nor does it confirm the item has been recycled.
  2. The Green Dot recycling symbol indicates a financial contribution to recycling schemes rather than the recyclability of the item itself.
  3. The Plastic Resin Identification Codes identify the type of plastic resin used in packaging but don’t necessarily promise recyclability.

Confused? Let’s explore these symbols in more detail.

Mobius Loop Symbol
Mobius Loop

The Universal Mobius Loop

The Mobius Loop signifies that a product or its packaging is capable of being recycled. However, it does not guarantee that the item will be accepted by any recycling collection system.

What if the Mobius Loop contains a percentage figure? The number represents the amount of the packaging made from recycled materials. The presence of the Mobius Loop does not ensure that the material has been previously recycled or will be recycled upon disposal.

It’s a reminder that recycling isn’t a straightforward process but a cycle where recycled material can be used, reused, and repurposed. For example, LDPE low-density polyethylene is used for plastic wrapping, such as food packaging, and typically can only be recycled once as the quality degrades to the point it’s plastic waste after that.

The Green Dot System Symbol
The Green Dot

The Green Dot System

The Green Dot, despite its name, is not about recycling in the traditional sense. The green dot recycling symbol represents a financial contribution to recycling schemes rather than the recyclability of the item itself. Producers showing the green dot recycling symbol on their packaging have financially contributed to the recovery and recycling of packaging within Europe.

Plastic Resin Identification Codes

Let’s move on to something a little more complex: understanding plastic resin codes. These codes are numbered from 1 to 7, each identifying the type of plastic used to make the item. This can help identify what kind of plastic you’re dealing with, but it’s not a guaranteed ticket to recycling. Not all plastics are readily recyclable plastics.

Despite their presence on many items, these codes do not necessarily promise that the item is recyclable. For example:

Number 1 triangle made of arrows
  • ‘1 PET’ denotes widely recycled polyethylene terephthalate.
Number 2 triangle made of arrows
  • ‘2 HDPE’ stands for widely recycled high-density polyethylene.
Number 3 triangle made of arrows
  • ‘3 PVC’ and ‘6 PS’ indicate plastics that are difficult to recycle
Number 4 in a triangle made of arrows
  • ‘4 LDPE’ is collected at specialised points.
Number 5 in a triangle made of arrows
  • ‘5 PP’ represents widely recycled polypropylene.

Navigating the Recyclability of Common Items

So, we’ve covered the basics of recycling symbols. Let’s look at how we can apply this knowledge to everyday items.

From plastic bottles to glass jars, cardboard boxes, and food containers, understanding how to recycle these everyday items properly can significantly improve our recycling habits and reduce contamination in recycling facilities.

Plastic Bottles and Containers

Resin identification code #1 (PET – polyethylene terephthalate) is commonly used in drink bottles and some food packaging, while code #2 (HDPE high-density polyethylene) is used for cleaning product bottles, milk cartons, and more.

PET and HDPE plastics are widely recycled, with PET being widely accepted for kerbside recycling and HDPE used in everyday household items like milk jugs and shampoo bottles. However, we often see ‘please recycle’ messages printed on labels to encourage proper disposal.

Note: PVC or polyvinyl chloride is a plastic used for windows, cables, flooring, pipes, etc. Its wide variety of uses, both stiff plastic and flexible plastic, and the high-quality demands of the material’s uses make it hard to collect separately and maintain quality due to the costs involved.

Number 70 in a triangle made of arrows

Glass Bottles and Jars

Glass bottles and jars are some of the most commonly recycled items. Yet, did you know that they have their specific recycling symbols? Although rare, the ‘Recycle glass’ emblem is used to encourage consumers to recycle glass containers like bottles and jars.

In some recycling programs, coloured glass must be separated from clear glass due to the different melting points and levels of recyclability. The glass recycling symbol may even have a code in the middle to help you determine where it should go (e.g. 70 GL for clear glass, 71 GL for green glass, and so on).

FSC with a tree combined with a tick above

Cardboard and Paper Packaging

Cardboard and paper packaging, from cereal boxes to delivery packages, are integral to our daily lives. But how do we recycle them correctly? The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification indicates that paper, card, and wood products come from responsibly managed forests and are recyclable.

Another symbol to look out for is the RESY symbol, which assures consumers and recyclers that paper and cardboard packaging is recyclable and will be accepted by recycling facilities. Sometimes, recycled paper products may have labelling that specifies the percentage of recycled content, providing consumers with transparency regarding the product’s environmental impact.

Specialised Recycling Symbols Explained

Beyond the everyday items and materials we’ve covered, there are specialised recycling symbols for compostable packaging and electrical items. While less common, these symbols are crucial in guiding appropriate disposal and recycling.

Ribbon with leaves at the top

Compostable Packaging Icons

Compostable packaging is growing in popularity as a more sustainable packaging alternative. Packaging with this feature carries unique symbols to certify its compostability. The ‘OK Compost’ symbol indicates that packaging is certified as industrially compostable in an industrial composting plant to differentiate it from home compostable packaging. These cannot be composted with your garden waste.

However, not all compostable packaging is created equal. The ‘OK Compost Home’ symbol indicates that a product is suitable for home composting and does not comply with industrial composting standards. This means these items can safely be added to a home compost pile, emphasising the importance of proper disposal separate from home plastics recycling collections.

Compostable plastic is not derived from oil, but more commonly, it’s plastic made from a natural raw material such as cane sugar or potatoes. So don’t forget to separate your compostable packaging from your recyclable packaging.

Bin with a cross over it crossing it out

Electricals and Batteries Recycling Marks

When it comes to electrical items and batteries, recycling gets a little more specialised. The Waste Electricals recycling symbol, characterised by a crossed-out wheelie bin, signifies that electrical products, including batteries, cannot be disposed of with regular waste.

An additional bar at the bottom of the crossed-out wheelie bin symbol in the WEEE logo further emphasises the requirement for separate collection of these items from unsorted waste. So, the next time you’re about to throw out an old phone charger or spent batteries, remember these symbols and direct them to a specific WEEE recycling service.

How to Handle Specific Plastics

So far, we’ve covered a lot of ground in understanding the recycling landscape. Now, let’s delve deeper into how to handle specific types of plastics – Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE).

Number 4 in a triangle made of arrows
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

LDPE is a type of plastic often used to create plastic bags, such as plastic carrier bags and bin bags, but is only sometimes recyclable through curbside programs. The greatest challenge in LDPE recycling is ensuring the plastic is clean and decontaminated efficiently before it can be reused.

Collecting LDPE from warehouses or farms and having it cleaned and sorted is a crucial part of recycling due to potential contamination. However, LDPE plastic can be collected for recycling with a specialised LDPE recycling machine and collection points, such as supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Number 2 in a triangle made of arrows
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a material commonly used to produce milk cartons, cleaning product bottles, and in the construction industry for pipes. The HDPE recycling symbol indicates that a product is made from high-density polyethylene and signifies its wide recyclability.

But what happens to HDPE products after they’re recycled? They’re processed into small pieces and formed into pellets, often combined with virgin HDPE to manufacture new products. Recycled HDPE typically has a dark colour, such as brown or black, due to the ease of dyeing clear plastic to darker shades rather than lightening it.

Number 41 in a triangle made of arrows

Metals in the Mix: Aluminium and Steel

Let’s not forget about metals in our recycling efforts. Aluminium and steel are critical materials that must be correctly identified and processed in recycling facilities. The aluminium recycling symbol denotes that an item is made from recyclable aluminium, which can be recycled repeatedly without losing quality.

Number 40 in a triangle made of arrows

Similarly, the steel recycling symbol indicates that the item is manufactured from steel, is magnetic, and is widely recyclable. Products and packaging marked with either the aluminium or steel recycling symbols can be recycled by local authorities, ensuring efficient material recovery.

Recyclable aluminium and steel are usually collected together as they can easily be separated at the recycling plants.

On-pack recycling labels

The On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) Decoded

An integral part of understanding the recycling landscape involves demystifying the On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) system. This system was designed to inform consumers about the recyclability of packaging by showing if the packaging material is likely to be collected for recycling with simple and clear labels.

Packaging collected by 75% or more of UK local authorities for recycling is labelled as ‘Recycle’, often using a symbol with a white swoosh on a green background. However, if less than 20% of local authorities collect them, they are marked with a ‘Not Yet Recycled’ label. These labels provide an easy reference for consumers to gauge the recyclability of the packaging materials they encounter.

Reducing Your Environmental Footprint

Beyond understanding recycling symbols and practices, reducing our environmental footprint involves making conscious choices about the products we buy. Choosing sustainable packaging requires balancing environmental considerations with the specific protection needs of the product to maintain quality for consumers.

Being selective in purchasing products by opting for those with minimal plastic or recyclable packaging, keeping in mind the specific plastics accepted by local recycling programs, can significantly reduce the amount of waste produced. It requires research and dedication, but its impact on our planet is worth it.

Tackling Misconceptions About Recycling Logos

Misconceptions about recycling logos can lead to confusion and improper disposal of materials. For example, the Green Dot symbol does not indicate that the packaging is recyclable, especially for UK consumers, where it holds no specific meaning.

Clear on-pack recycling labels with straightforward instructions can significantly improve the public’s recycling habits. It’s about understanding what each symbol means and how to act to ensure we recycle effectively and responsibly.


Understanding recycling symbols and how to apply them to everyday items is a critical step towards sustainable living. From the Mobius Loop to the Green Dot, each symbol has a story to tell and a role to play in our recycling journey. By making informed decisions, we can contribute to a cleaner planet and a sustainable future, one piece of packaging at a time.

If you would like help managing complex waste streams, and maximising your recycling, speak to one of our team today.