Reduce, reuse, recycle, we have all heard this phrase before, and all know the meaning behind it. Plastic has been put into the spotlight, especially over the last five years. With more people being urged to ditch single-use plastics and instead adopt recyclable plastics, it is important to know which plastics can be recycled and what the recycling numbers on plastic products mean.

The symbols on plastic products that look like the recycling symbol with a number inside are called the material identification code. This symbol usually appears on the bottom of recyclable plastic products. Contrary to what some believe, the numbers do not represent the number of times the plastic can be recycled. Instead, these symbols are there to communicate to manufacturers and recyclers what polymers are present within the product.

The numbers on these symbols range from one to seven. The acronym of the relevant polymer is displayed underneath the triangle. This is what these numbers and acronym mean:

  1. PET

The recycling symbol with a 1 is used to symbolise polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  This polymer is most commonly used for food and drink packaging and is a widely recycled plastic in South African and the world.


The above acronym, coupled with a 2 in the symbol, is used to represent high-density polyethylene. This is a strong and hard form of polyethylene. It is usually used to manufacture products such as milk, fruit juice and shampoo bottles, plastic drums and buckets. Its strength makes it ideal for products that need to withstand day-to-day wear and tear. This polymer is recycled in South Africa.

  1. PVC

Polyvinyl chloride is represented by a 3 within the symbol followed by the above acronym. This specific polymer is used to create irrigation pipes, medicine seals, toys and more. This is a relatively difficult polymer to recycle and requires special equipment. For this reason, manufacturers have started to replace PVC products with PET instead, therefore, ensuring easily recyclable products.

  1. PE-LD/ LDPE

The identification code containing a 4 is used to symbolise low-density polyethylene which is used to make products such as grocery bags, packets, bubble wrap and sandwich bags. This is due to the flexible nature of the polymer. This is a widely recycled plastic in South Africa however, previously this kind of plastic could jam the sorting machines, this is no longer the case.

  1. PP

The number 5 on the recycling symbol is used for polypropylene plastic products. This temperature-resistant polymer is used when producing ice cream containers, kettles, straws, bottle caps and garden furniture. This type of plastic is a commonly recycled polymer in South Africa.

  1. PS

The number 6 on the recycling symbol is used to symbolise two different types of polystyrene, expanded and hardened polystyrene. Expanded polystyrene is used to make packaging fillers and takeaway food containers. Whereas hardened polystyrene is used for things such as coat hangers, bread tags as well as yoghurt cups. Both types of polystyrene are recycled in facilities in South Africa.

  1. Other

7 is used in conjunction with the recycling symbol to symbolise any other plastic polymer that is not mentioned above. Under the recycling symbol, however, the acronym of the range of polymers used in the product are displayed. Plastics with these codes are often made from a range of different polymers, therefore, making them difficult to recycle or non-recyclable.