Recycling symbols: how to recognize and interpret them

The recycling symbols are very important for correctly disposing of the various types of waste. For this, we must learn to recognize them and interpret them in the right way, so as not to make a mistake.

Recycling symbols: how to recognize and interpret them

Retrieve as many waste possible is essential to protect our planet and, in order to ensure correct disposal, convenient recycling symbols.

On the packaging of various products or directly on the production materials, there are small icons that allow us to gather useful information. From the actual possibility of recycling to the correct methods of disposal, these symbols multiply from year to year. But how to recognize the most important and, above all, how to interpret them?

Fortunately, most of the recycling symbols are regulated at European level: this means that, in every country of the European Union, we will find ourselves with the same indications on the label. An extra convenience, consequently, even when we travel. Below, a look at the most popular ones.

Recycling symbols: what they are


For recycling symbols – better known as recycling codes – means icons shown on materials and labels of consumer products, in order to facilitate their correct disposal. These arise not only to identify the type of material, but also its effective possibility of recovery.

If absent, the waste in your possession must be placed in the undifferentiated waste or disposed of according to the advice given on the label.

Worldwide, each country tends to adopt its own recycling codes. As already mentioned, Europe wanted to do more by adopting an even more environmental approach: from 28 January 1997, the European Commission in fact, it has decided to unify the symbols for all its member states.

Which materials have recycling symbols

There are very many materials that can be recycled, many more than commonly thought. And each has its own recycling symbol. Of course, the average consumer doesn’t need to know them all, but rather recognize those for the most common materials in the home. These include:

  • Plastic and its derivatives, from PET to polystyrene;
  • Glass;
  • Aluminum and tin;
  • Paper and cardboard;
  • Tetrapak.

Often the recycling symbols for these materials are accompanied by other indications, such as for example that of flattening the package before throwing it away, the need to rinse the container before disposal or, again, small numbers. These identify the substance contained in the container or used to produce it and, in general, underline some additional need for recycling.

Triangle with three arrows: the universal symbol

Triangle of recycling

Let’s start with one of the first popular symbolsThat of the triangle with three arrows. It is considered a real “universal” symbol, since almost the whole world adopts it. Yet, however widespread, it could be misleading: in fact, different forms of recycling derive from its shape and colour.

  • Moebius triangle: it is the symbol that foresees green arrows folded back on themselves, to form an infinite circle. It is used for paper, cardboard and cellulose;
  • Triangle with three arrows: similar to the previous one, but with curved black arrows, but not folded or three-dimensional. It is usually used for the most common plastics, both to indicate the possibility of recycling and the use of recycled plastic;
  • Embraced arrows: there are also green embraced arrows, as if to recall ying and yang. This is the Grune Punk, or “the green dot”, and is used in Germany to signal not only the possibility of recycling, but also the fact that the manufacturing company adheres to material recovery plans and projects for correct disposal.

Plastic symbols

Plastic recycling, symbol

Plastic is one of the most widespread materials in the world and, unfortunately, also one of the most polluting. For this reason, it is essential that it is recycled as much as possible. But what are the symbols of recyclable plastic?

Recyclable plastic is first of all identified with the triangle with three black arrows, which however retains additional information compared to other materials:

  • And numbershown in the center of the triangle, which identifies one of the 7 types of recyclable plastic;
  • A sailshown below the triangle, which further specifies the type of plastic.

Among the seven types, you can find PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS and PI. PET is certainly the most widespread plastic, because it is the one with which bottles are made. The other acronyms identify variants of polyethylene with different densities and different intended uses – for example, for food or take-away containers. PI, on the other hand, identifies polylaminates, i.e. made of different but not easily separable materials, such as Tetrapak.

Be careful, however, as a hexagon with black outlines, empty inside, could also be reported on the plastic packages. It is used for objects in PET, PE, PP, PS and PVC which, inside them, store liquids both for food use and for other purposes.

Glass symbols

Glass recycling symbol

It is always very simple to recognize the glass, a material that can be recycled indefinitely. This is because it is easy to identify even simply with a glance, as well as with touch. However, there may be objects that are not so obvious to recognize and, for this, we need to examine their symbols.

The classic triangle with three black arrows could be available on the glass, often accompanied in the center by a stylized little man who throws a bottle into the appropriate street collector. Much more frequently a is available instead black circlewith the sigla AND in the center. Again, the numbers 70, 71 and 72 could be present, used to identify different types of glass, all recyclable and, as a rule, all accepted by street collection bells.

Card symbols

Paper recycling

Also there carta and its derivatives, such as the cardboard, are very easy to recognize. First of all, the objects made in this material could bear both the green arrow of Moebius and the more classic black triangle, accompanied by other indications. The Moebius arrow can also be monochrome, inscribed inside a circle. In this case:

  • Dark circle background: indicates the presence of fully recycled paper;
  • Light circle background: indicates the presence of only partially recycled paper;

More recycling symbols

Miscellaneous symbols for garbage

By carefully observing the materials to be disposed of available in your home, you will notice that on the labels there are also icons that are different from those already listed.


The icon of a trash can, often accompanied by a stylized little man who throws waste inside, indicates that the material cannot be disposed of in the environment.

Crushed packaging

The image of a hand crushing a package simply indicates to flatten the container after use, to facilitate waste collection and disposal operations. It is generally present on the Tetrapack, such as packs of fruit juices, milk, wine in cartons and so on.


The wording Ecolabel is a brand desired at European level and indicates products that comply with European regulations on lower environmental impact, throughout the product’s life cycle, from production to disposal.

Open jar

An open jar, often accompanied by a number, instead identifies the PAO, the number of months guaranteed before the product loses its properties after opening. Widespread on cosmetics, if, for example, the symbol with the abbreviation “5M” is present, it means that that rouge can be used five months after first opening without fear of deterioration.

Trash can

A crossed-out rubbish bin indicates the presence of WEEE, therefore electronic waste – such as smartphones, computer components and so on – which must therefore be disposed of at the appropriate collection centres.

Glass and fork

The logo of a glass and a fork simply indicates that the material, often plastic, is suitable for contact with food.

Cross, fire and skull

Finally, some warning signs. The cross highlights a product harmful to health, fire an obviously flammable material and the skull a toxic substance if inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.

Source: GreenStyle by

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