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Environment

What do recycling symbols actually mean – and what can I recycle?

Recycling doesn’t have to be a headache. Here’s everything you need to know about deciphering the symbols, codes and rules on packaging.

Waste is a major problem in almost every country around the world, accounting for 3 per cent of yearly greenhouse emissions in the EU alone. 

Large landfill sites, often sited in developing countries, create environmental problems of their own, while in the UK incinerated waste generates yet more greenhouse gas emissions.

It can be tempting to opt for the most convenient option when getting rid of household waste by simply throwing it in the bin – but by doing so, you’ll be contributing to the UK’s mounting problem with rubbish.

Instead, the most eco-friendly option is to recycle whatever you can, either at home or at local authority recycling centres. 

With so many different rules around what can and can’t be recycled, and where, the UK’s recycling system can be a little bit complicated – but we’re here to help.

This is your guide to everything you need to know about where, what and how to recycle, along with a guide to the most common recycling symbols.

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What kind of items can be recycled in general? 

Unfortunately, what you can and can’t recycle in the bins or boxes provided by your local authority depends on where you live.

By and large, there are some materials and items that will generally be collected regardless of your location, such as cartons, tin cans and cardboard.

Yet while some local authorities will take glass away, others require you to recycle this yourself at a local centre.

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How can I check what recycling my local authority will take?

Your local authority’s web page should have a guide to what can and can’t be recycled. Alternatively, RecycleNow’s tool can tell you what’s allowed in your area.

As well as telling you what you can and can’t put in your box or bin, the tool can tell you where to take a specific item for recycling, as well as giving you information on recycling centres near your home. 

All you have to do is enter your postcode into the tool and results specific to your area will appear.

What are the most common recycling symbols – and what do they mean?

Recycle symbol 

Image: Recycle Now

The white arrow on a green background is one of the most common recycling symbols and indicates that the item is recycled by 75 per cent of local authorities.

Recycle / rinse symbol 

Image: Recycle Now

This symbol is also a white arrow on a green background with the addition of the word “rinse”. This means that you should rinse the item before it goes in your recycling bin or box.

Recycle / rinse / lid/cap on

Image: Recycle Now

A variation on the recycle and rinse symbol, this indicates that you should keep the lid on the item, such as a milk carton, as some lids are too small to be captured by recycling machines on their own.

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Remove sleeve symbol 

Image: Recycle Now

If you see a white arrow on a black background along with the words ‘remove sleeve’, this means that you cannot recycle the film or sleeve on the item (such as a food tray) but can usually recycle the rest of the item. 

Not yet recycled symbol 

Image: ISM Recycling

A self-explanatory symbol, this white arrow on a black background means that fewer than 20 per cent of councils can recycle this item for you. Check with your local authority to see whether you are able to recycle it. 

Mobius loop symbol 

Mobius loop symbol. (Image: Pixabay)

This symbol shows three arrows pointing towards one another in a triangular loop and simply means an item can technically be recycled but not that it has been recycled or that it will be accepted for recycling. Again, you should check with your local authority if you see this symbol. 

Waste electricals

Image: Reducereuserecycle.co.uk

A symbol showing a cross through a bin, this usually appears on electrical items and indicates that you should not put the item in your normal recycling bin or box.

You can usually recycle electronics at other places near where you live. 

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Pet symbol 

A PET recycling symbol. (Image: Pixabay)

This symbol, of three arrows in a triangle with a number in the middle, is usually found on plastics.

The number indicates the type of plastic the item is made of, and is a guide to whether the item can easily be recycled. 

The numbers and their meanings are as follows: 

1 = PET, Polyethylene Terephthalate, which is widely recycled.

2 = HDPE, High-Density Polyethylene, also widely recycled.

3 = PVC, Polyvinyl Chloride, which is recyclable but harder to do so. This means you should check with your local authority.

4 = LDPE, Low-Density Polyethylene, again one to check with your local authority. 

5 = PP, Polypropylene, hard or not possible to recycle, so try to reuse or avoid the material entirely. PP is used in items like tupperware and disposable cups.

6 = PS, Polystyrene or Styrofoam, difficult to recycle so again try to avoid it. This kind of plastic is used in things like disposable coffee cups. 

7 = other. This is usually a mix of lots of different plastics and is pretty tricky to recycle.

What if the item doesn’t have a recycling symbol? 

An item lacking a recycling symbol doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be recycled.

If you’re not sure whether you can recycle it in your local area, you can check on your local authority website or by using RecycleNow’s tool. 

What can I recycle outside my home?

Some soft plastics and batteries can now be recycled at a number of large supermarket retailers, meaning you can drop off waste while you shop. 

For larger items like furniture or bikes, some local authorities offer services to come and pick these items up, or allow them to be dropped off at local centres.

If your local authority doesn’t provide this service, a local charity may. 

Clothes and textiles can now also be recycled in a variety of ways. Some high street stores like H&M and Primark offer stations where you can recycle clothes, while some recycling centres have bins for recycling textiles. 

You can use RecycleNow’s tool to check where you can recycle textiles and clothes near you.

Don’t throw old electronics away either – there are now plenty of ways to give them a new life rather than send them to landfill.Again, RecycleNow has a tool to check where you can recycle electronics near you.

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