The Complexity of Recycling Symbols: European Edition

2021 is here! A brand new year means a brand new opportunity to start anew. As much as I enjoy New Year’s resolutions and fresh starts, I am also a firm believer in refreshing (and consolidating) former knowledge. After all, repetition is the key to learning and mastery.

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a rise in single use items (mostly plastics). Some of them, like masks and latex gloves, cannot be recycled. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make sure to recycle what we can. I took this opportunity to dive into recycling guidelines and educate myself deeper on the matter. And let me tell you: I had no clue what I was getting myself into.

My biggest discovery? There is no universal agreement on recycling symbols – and of course there is no universal recycling system.

Having lived in 3 countries, personally I am not shocked, but at the same time I keep wondering why we make our lives more complicated than they have to be. Surely a common agreement on recycling symbols makes sense? A story for another day…

So let’s get down to business. As much as I would like to provide all of you with a list of recycling symbols for all countries, this article is focused on Europe. If you want this to be a series, let us know in the comment section and I will gladly look into other countries. Until then, let’s break down European symbols.

How to Decipher Common Recycling Symbols and What To Do When You See Them

I am going to start with a symbol that has generated a lot (and I mean A LOT) of confusion: the Green Dot.

This symbol has nothing to do with the recyclability of an item. It simply is there to demonstrate that the manufacturer has made the required financial contribution for recycling services in Europe. You will rarely find a product nowadays that does not have this symbol, unless of course it was manufactured outside of Europe.

What to do when you see it: This symbol does not affect the recycling of the product in any way, so look for other symbols to decipher whether the product should be recycled or not.

Moving on, we have the Mobius Loop.

This symbols indicates that the product can be recycled. When there is a percentage inside the triangle, this shows how much of it has been made from recycled materials.

What to do when you see it: Depending on the material, you can put it on the appropriate recycling bin.

Next we have the symbol for aluminium. When you see this symbol on an item it means that it has been made from aluminium (or foil) that is recyclable.

What to do when you see it: Dispose the item into the recycling bin for aluminium.

The FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) symbol is there to identify wood-based products and to tell you that the item you purchased has been made from well managed forests, independently certified by the FSC.

What to do when you see it: Dispose the item into the nearest carton recycling bin.

The Seedling Logo is placed on products that are certified to be industrially compostable.

What to do when you see it: Please note, that any product with this logo on cannot and actually should not get disposed in the recycling bin. These products cannot be recycled and they will end up contaminating all of the recycling batch collection.

All electric and electronic equipment in Europe should have this symbol on its packaging. Bear in mind that all electronic products contain very harmful chemicals for humans and the environment, so it is highly recommended that they get recycled.

What to do when you see it: Electronic and electric equipment can be recycled by following a very specific process and needs to be placed in the bins for electric and electronic waste only.

In the UK, this symbol is used for displaying of recycling glass.

What to do when you see it: Glass jars and cans are widely recycled but make sure to rinse off the containers first, to ensure there is no residue left so they don’t contaminate the rest glass containers.

Pro tip: you can remove the cork from glass bottles and compost it! (But make sure first that it’s actually cork and not made of plastic)

There is no symbol for food scraps, but they too can be collected and composted in specific bins provided by your local authority. I want to stress as much as I can that it is very important you compost food waste. That is because when food waste ends up in the general waste bins it releases methane, a greenhouse gas which is very infamously known for the serious effects on the climate.

And last but not least, may I present you the symbols for… (Imaginary drum roll) plastics!

You have probably already seen yourself many different symbols for plastics. All of them are represented by a triangle with various numbers inside of it and some letters beneath it. These are codes that indicate the type of plastic the product is made of and whether or not it can be recycled. And this is where it gets quite tricky.

For example, in Ireland and Greece people do not have to look at the number/letters to identify whether a rigid plastic product can be placed in the recycling bin. They just have to know it is made of plastic and the sorting out will be done for them at the recycling centre. But in the UK, people are told that plastics with the number 6 inside the triangle are non-recyclable and cannot be placed in the recycling bin. #

Pro tip: Regulations vary a lot from country to country so always check with your local authorities to make sure you are doing your part for better recycling.

But here are some general European regulations:

PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common plastic for single-use for bottles (water, sodas etc).

What to do when you see it: Empty and rinse off the any food left inside and you can dispose it at the nearest recycling bin for plastics.

HDPE (high density polyethylene) is a versatile plastic with many uses. It is mostly used for various types of packaging e.g. detergent bottles, shampoo bottles and butter tubs.

What to do when you see it: This symbol indicates that the product can be recycled with other plastics but bear in mind that filmsy plastics like grocery bags (made of HDPE) cannot be recycled.

PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) is usually used in cables and piping. It is not easy to recycle and burning it releases very harmful toxins

What to do when you see it: PVC can be recycled but it is rare. You need to contact local authorities and find out where you can drop the materials off.

LDPE (low density polyethylene) is a flexible plastic and is used in various packaging including shopping plastic bags.

What to do when you see it: You need to check with local authorities but most often it can get recycled with the rest of the plastic materials, at least in Europe.

PP (Polypropylene) is used in tupperware, disposable cups, and some food containers.

What to do when you see it: PP is hard and sometimes not even possible to recycle so make sure to check with your local authorities if they accept this type of plastic for their recycling program.

Polystyrene or Styrofoam is the material used in disposable plastics (coffee cups, plastic cutlery, etc.)

What to do when you see it: PS, like PP, is hard and sometimes impossible to recycle. Try to avoid purchasing such packaging and always make sure that it can get accepted by your local authority that handles recycling before you place it to the plastics recycling bin.

This identifies all of the plastic resins that don’t fit into the other categories.

What to do when you see it: Unfortunately, products and packaging that have this symbol are very hard to recycle. There could be some local facilities that accept them, so make sure to always check with them first. Try to avoid using them though, because they are rarely recycled.

Confused yet? Yeah, me too! But until we get a universal system there isn’t much we can do other than be very careful with our waste. Because let’s face it: it is our waste and WE are responsible for making sure it ends up where it should.

Happy recycling!

Want to keep reading? Check out some relevant content:

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Published by Yianna

Biology graduate, passionate about life & nature, Earth Hour supporter and dog owner!

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