So What Do All Of Those Recycling Symbols Mean Anyway?


By: Evelio Mattos

It's critical for designers working in package design to understand the symbols used to communicate the process of recycling or material sorting.

Of course, not all municipalities are required to recycle materials with these symbols on them, but the symbols are there to simplify the process of sorting. Additionally, recycling these materials is determined by the regional demand for the recycled byproduct.

Still, taking a gander at the back of any package might leave you feeling a little lost as to what the symbols are trying to convey. Here’s a handy guide that breaks down all of the recycling symbols.

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Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

FSC isn’t about recycling, but it does concern responsibly-sourced materials. In fact, you could say they're the gold standard for forest certification systems.

The checkmark-and-tree icon and license number identify that the materials with this symbol come from an FSC certified forest or post-consumer waste. The license numbers certify that the company is not only authorized to use the logo, but they adhere to the strict management processes throughout the supply chain.

Essentially, FSC certified materials come from forests managed to protect old-growth, prevent the loss of natural forest cover, defend the rights of indigenous people, water quality, and it prohibits the use of hazardous chemicals.

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#1 PET

Polyethylene Terephthalate is a polymer resin used in thermoforming of inserts, water bottles, and take out containers. The PET triangle emblazoned with the number one is the most widely recycled material due to the diverse number of products it can convert to.

PET is currently being recycled into new bottles, fabrics, or spun into poly fillings for outerwear, pet-beds, and bedding.

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High-Density Polyethylene is an extremely versatile material recycled easily in the majority of municipalities around the country. It’s both strong and lightweight, replacing heavier materials in packaging by reducing the item's environmental impact, partially due to its lower risk of leaching.

HDPE can be just as easily extruded to make bags as it can be molded to produce make-up palettes or outdoor furniture.

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#3 PVC

Polyvinyl Chloride is a strong and lightweight plastic used in both its flexible and rigid form with a combination of plasticizers. As with all plastics, they are delivered in a pelletized or powdered form into which added pigments create a rainbow of colors. Because PVC is chlorine-based, it’s not dependent on crude oil, making it incompatible with other types of polymers. PVC must be sorted and recycled only with PVC, as even the smallest amount is considered a waste stream contaminant.

Note that size matters, small items (fist-sized or smaller) typically get filtered out through the sorting process and end up in landfills.

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Low-Density Polyethylene has many applications, but its most relatable application is the plastic shopping bag film due to its strength and flexibility. LDPE is also used in coating other substrates for its water-resistance and tear strength in items like paper cups, milk cartons and frozen food bags. The process of layering materials renders both the base substrate and the coating difficult to separate and individually recycled.

Therefore products of combined substrates typically go to a landfill or are incinerated (this is considered recycling in some states as it becomes energy).

With bulk collection programs for LDPE or LDPE-coated materials, the streamlined program makes for an easily recycled material. Plastic shopping bag collection programs at grocery stores will gather thousands of the plastic menace, recycling them at one time without contaminating other waste streams.

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#5 PP

Polypropylene (PP) is a durable, rigid plastic that can be heat-fused and molded with flexible living hinges. Typical packaging uses include food that requires hot filling processes as the PP material has a high melting point and can withstand the process.

PP is also becoming the choice for plastic straws as the material does not readily crack, nor does it sink. Brands like P&G and Unilever are building a market for post-consumer PP which is seeing an increase in the material’s use.

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#6 PS

Polystyrene can be either rigid or made into a protective Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) foam, AKA Styrofoam (which is a brand name for expanded foam insulation from Dow Chemical).

In its rigid form, we encounter it as single-use silverware, toys, electronics, and more. In its expanded or extruded form, the foam can be upwards of 95% air giving it excellent protective qualities. We encounter styrofoam in many aspects of our lives—surfboards, egg packaging, packing peanuts, and many other uses that require lightweight product protection.

Once PS has been expanded and becomes the end product EPS, you can no longer convert it back into PS. In fact, it's cheaper to produce it using virgin PS than to reuse it. Rigid PS is recyclable and transforms into many products post-life, but make sure to check your local municipality if it’s accepted.

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#7 Misc. or Other

Number seven essentially means all other plastics including bioplastics, multi-sourced plastics, compostables, fiberglass, nylon, and others that may include BPA. Bio-based plastics are also categorized #7 and contain Polylactic Acid (PLA), a material derived from renewable, plant-based sources as opposed to those made from petroleum.

A benefit to bioplastics is that they are biodegradable under certain circumstances, but they require industrial processing. Bioplastics will not biodegrade at home or in a landfill, and in these environments, they will break down as slowly as petroleum-based plastics.

#7 is the catch-all mutt of plastics, and many curbside programs will not accept #7 plastics, including those labeled PLA.

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Post-Consumer Waste (PCW)

PCW identifies the materials used in the final product were recycled at the end of their life-cycle. Many states today are requiring packaging use various amounts of PCW, in California, for example, all paper shopping bags must include a minimum of 40% PCW and be fully recyclable. Not adhering to these bag laws can result in fines to the brand responsible.

Pre-Consumer waste—which shares the PCW abbreviation—is made up of recycled materials that never made it to the consumer like trimmings, rejected materials, or scraps.

With more packaging material bans and laws governing recycling changing daily, designers can choose to use materials that have a higher post-consumer content. The more demand for recycled materials, the more reason for municipalities to accept a broader range of substrates. Increase demand, and they’ll increase supply.

Today in the US, consumers make the decision as to what goes into their curbside bins, but that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone knows what materials pass muster.

Recycling symbols on packaging solely mean that the materials contained within are, in fact, recyclable. But, they do not communicate that the end product is accepted at curbside nationally. There are many groups today working on further educating consumers and standardizing labels on collection bins. Recycle Across America has recently released standardized labels that easily identify landfill waste, compostable waste, glass, cans, and plastic bottles reducing confusion at the bin.

It’s important to be informed about the materials you choose, where they will live, and the recycling capabilities of those regions. As a consumer, it’s always best to abide by the age-old rule, “when in doubt, throw it out," but as a designer, it’s important to educate yourself, your client, and the consumer.


We’ve provided a vector pack of these symbols as reference below.


Evelio Mattos

Evelio Mattos is the Creative Director of both Design Packaging Inc., and FORMA Structural Packaging. His reputation as one of the leading structural and visual packaging designers for international retail brands has led to collaborative partnerships spanning industries from tech, fashion & beauty, to include wine & spirits.

His team of directors, graphic artists, industrial designers, and Creative Production artists, are involved in the development of powerful user-centric branded retail experiences. Together they strategically identify packaging users to include distribution centers, fulfillment staff, retail associates, and the ultimate user…the consumer.

Evelio’s experience in streamlining and retooling manufacturing processes has led to launching the first ever “Creative Production” team. The team’s focus is twofold: Structural Functionality, and Print Optimization. By applying these two principles, his team is able to deliver the designer’s on-screen expectation to an in-hand experience.

“Good design creates opportunity, the parameters we set define the space in which we design.”

Tips + AdviceBill McCool