Recycling codes

Recycling codes are used to identify the material from which an item is made, to facilitate easier recycling or other reprocessing. Having a recycling code, the chasing arrows logo or a resin code on an item is not an automatic indicator that a material is recyclable but rather an explanation of what the item is. Such symbols have been defined for batteries, biomatter/organic material, glass, metals, paper, and plastics.

Various countries have adopted different codes. For example, China’s polymer identification system has seven different classifications of plastic, five different symbols for post-consumer paths, and 140 identification codes.

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The lack of codes in some countries has encouraged those who can fabricate their own plastic products, to adopt a voluntary recycling code based on the more comprehensive Chinese system.

Recycling symbols can be further divided into two separate categories.

  1. ‘Recyclable’ symbols marking products made from specific materials that are suitable for recycling depending on whether there is a collection mechanism in place within the local community for those particular materials.
  2. ‘Recycled’ symbols designating products containing recycled materials.

The use of the terms ‘recycled’ and ‘recyclable’, among others, and the display of the symbols is governed by the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims. These guidelines govern all environmental claims attached to and/or associated with products, including those described in labeling, advertising, and all forms of marketing.

The international standard for defining environmental claims on products or packaging can be found in ISO 14021: Environmental Labels and Declarations-Self-declared Environmental Claims.

Meaning of the recycling symbol

Each of the three arrows can represent one step in a three-step process that forms a closed loop, the recycling loop. The first step represents collection of materials to be recycled. This step takes place when recyclable materials are placed into your curbside recycling bin or taken to a local collection center. The collected materials are then cleaned and sorted for sale to a manufacturing facility. The manufacturing process is the second arrow in the recycling symbol. The recyclable materials are manufactured into new products for retail or commercial sale. The third step is the actual purchase and use of the products made from the recycled materials. The loop is now complete.


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