What are recycling codes?
Identifying packaging materials to aid recycling
An understanding of recycling codes can be hugely beneficial. This is particularly true if you are responsible for your business’ packaging, the sustainability of your organisation, or are a consumer struggling to recycle packaging.
Recycling codes identify the material from which an item is made. Despite common perception, the codes do not indicate whether an item is recyclable. Materials with specific recycling codes include paper, glass, metals and composites. Codes are displayed in a triangular chasing arrows logo, with a number and accompanying letters.
The European Commission system also includes batteries. And when considering plastics specifically, it is common to refer to them as resin identification codes (RIC).
This guide provides an overview of all the recycling codes and symbols. With additional information on materials commonly used in packaging, you can also download the relevant logos in several formats.
Background and history
The introduction of resin identification codes (RIC)
The Mobius loop, arguably the most well-known recycling symbol, was created in the early 1970s as part of a competition.
However, by the 1980s, plastics manufacturers had begun to use a similar symbol but with the addition of a number inside. The companies used these symbols to denote the type of plastic – a resin identification code (RIC).
Due to the nature of the design, many consumers believed that it indicated a product or packaging item was recyclable. But all the RIC does is tell plastic manufacturers what type of material the item uses in its manufacture – it does not address recyclability in any way.
Due to this, the extended polymer identification system used in China switched away from the well-known design featuring the chasing arrows. It instead now uses a solid equilateral triangle.
Codes defined by the European Commission
The European Commission defined various resin identification codes to standardise across member territories. The EC system, however, extended beyond plastic resins to cover glass, paper, batteries, metals and other materials that consumers are likely to encounter.
These are the codes you can find in this guide.
Recycling codes on packaging
As packaging is one of the most frequently handled items by consumers, and they recycle most often, the recycling codes are often synonymous with packaging.
However, recycling codes are available for a vast range of different materials (which companies use to manufacture a broad range of products).
Nevertheless, this guide focuses on the recycling codes and symbols most commonly found on packaging.
You can also see details of specific packaging recycling symbols in this guide.
Important notice on using these symbols
The following symbols and logos are provided for free download on this page in either vector (EPS) or bitmap (JPEG) format for you to use as appropriate.
Please note, however, it is your responsibility to ensure that any symbols used are done so in the correct manner.
GWP Group Ltd can accept no responsibility for unlawful or incorrect use of the supplied symbols. GWP can also accept no responsibility for damage or loss resulting from incorrect usage of these symbols on your packaging.
If you have any doubts, contact your packaging or material supplier in the first instance. You can also speak with a GWP advisor using the details on this page.
Resin identification codes for plastics
Codes used for plastics and polymers
The following symbols indicate the type of plastic polymer used on a specific product or packaging. Many organisations commonly refer to these as resin identification codes.
#1 PET(E) - Polyethylene terephthalate
Polyethylene terephthalate is popular in packaging applications for soft drink bottles and food containers. Polyester fibres fall in this category.
#2 PEHD or HDPE - High-density polyethylene
#3 PVC - Polyvinyl chloride
Not commonly used in packaging, Polyvinyl chloride is suited to making window frames, pipes and flooring.
#4 PELD or LDPE - Low-density polyethylene
Manufacturers use LDPE for creating packaging, such as Ziploc bags, alongside consumer products, such as buckets and chopping boards.
#5 PP – Polypropylene
#6 PS – Polystyrene
#7 O (Other) - All other plastics
This category covers other plastics, including Polycarbonate (PC), polyamide (PA), styrene acrylonitrile (SAN), acrylic plastics/polyacrylonitrile (PAN) and bioplastics.
ABS - Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene
PA - Polyamide (Nylon)
Paper recycling codes
Recycling codes for paper products
You can find the symbols in the following section on paper-based materials and products, including corrugated cardboard packaging.
#20 PAP - Corrugated fiberboard (cardboard)
#21 PAP - Non-corrugated fiberboard (paperboard)
The use of non-corrugated fibreboard is commonplace for packaging foods such as cereals. Gift boxes and promotional packs frequently use this material too.
#22 PAP - Paper
Besides books, newspapers and catalogues, packaging applications such as bags and straws use paper-based materials.
Metal recycling codes
Recycling codes for metal packaging
These recycling codes are those used for metal products such as cans and containers.
#40 FE - Steel
#41 ALU - Aluminium
Biomatter recycling codes
Recycling codes for biomaterials
The European Commission defines recycling codes for biomatter materials like wood, cotton and other fabrics.
#50 FOR - Wood
Businesses use wood to create packaging crates and pallets alongside consumer goods such as furniture.
#51 FOR - Cork
The main application for cork in terms of packaging is as a “bottle stopper” for wines and similar drinks.
#60 COT - Cotton
Cotton is occasionally used in packaging to laminate surfaces to prevent scuffing of items, including in reusable stillages.
#61 TEX – Jute
Glass recycling codes
Recycling codes for glass packaging
Glass is a widely used material for packaging (particularly bottles); therefore, the European Commission has created several recycling codes for this material.
#70 GL - Clear glass
#71 GL - Green glass
#72 GL - Brown glass
Other types of glass, not typically used in packaging applications, include the following:
#73 GL - Dark sort glass
#74 GL - Light sort glass
#75 GL - Light leaded glass
#76 GL - Leaded glass
#77 GL - Copper mixed/Copper-backed glass
#78 GL - Silver mixed/Silver-backed glass
#79 GL - Gold mixed/Gold-backed glass
Composite material recycling codes
Composites are effectively combinations of materials (e.g. plastic laminated paper). These can be difficult to recycle, so they have their own recycling codes.
#80 Paper - Paper and miscellaneous metals
Manufacturers may mix paper with various metals to provide enhanced properties when used for packaging.
#81 PapPet - Paper and plastic
Packaging such as pet food bags, ice cream tubs, and disposable plates use paper and plastic composite material.
#82 - Paper and fibreboard/aluminium
#84 C/PAP (or PapAl) - Paper and cardboard/plastic/aluminium
Drinks producers use paper combined with plastic and/or aluminium for juice cartons and other liquid storage containers.
#87 CSL (Card-stock laminate) - Biodegradable plastic
You can find this type of composite material in greeting cards, flyers, brochures and similar items.
#90 - Plastics/aluminium
Other composite materials, less commonly used for packaging, include the following.
#83 - Paper and fibreboard/tinplate
#85 - Paper and fibreboard/plastic/aluminium/tinplate
#91 - Plastic/tinplate
#92 - Plastic/miscellaneous metals
#95 - Glass/plastic
#96 - Glass/aluminium
#97 - Glass/tinplate
#98 - Glass/miscellaneous metals
Recycling codes for batteries
Batteries also have their own recycling codes. So although not applicable to packaging, for the sake of completeness, these codes are as follows:
#8 Lead - Lead–acid battery
#9 Alkaline - Alkaline battery
#10 NiCD - Nickel–cadmium battery
#11 NiMH - Nickel–metal hydride battery
#12 Li - Lithium battery
#13 SO(Z) - Silver-oxide battery
#14 CZ - Zinc–carbon battery
Understanding recycling codes and use on your packaging
Depending on the market you operate in, the type of products you manufacture or sell, and your location, including the relevant recycling code on your packaging (or products), may be compulsory.
Even if it isn’t, it can help your consumers to identify if and how they can recycle your packaging.
However, the range of alternative packaging recycling symbols may be more appropriate – and clearer – for your customers.
As a customer of GWP, you can ask for advice on the best recycling codes, logos and symbols to include on your packaging. Please get in touch with a packaging expert today for assistance.