What do the numbers on plastic products mean?

Have you ever seen the symbols on plastic products that look like a recycling logo with a number inside? These are called the material identification codes. They tell plastic manufacturers and recyclers which polymers are present in the plastic product. These symbols do not have anything to do with the number of times the plastic can be recycled, as is commonly believed.

The coding system is used around the world by recyclers to separate and sort plastics so that they can be processed according to the main polymer present.

The numbers on the identification symbol range from one to seven. These numbers are contained within three chasing arrows, forming a triangle around the number. The acronym of the polymer is also displayed underneath the triangle.

1. PET – Polyethylene terephthalate

The symbol with a 1 is used for PET plastic. PET is one of the most common polymers used for food and beverage packaging. It is used to make carbonated drink bottles, water bottles, plastic jars, punnets, trays, strapping tape and more. PET is widely recycled in South Africa and around the world.  For more info visit

2. PE-HD (or HDPE) – High-density polyethylene

The identification code with a 2 is used for PE-HD plastic. This is a hard and strong form of polyethylene that is used to manufacture milk bottles, fruit juice bottles, plastic drums, buckets, crates, bins and shampoo bottles. PE-HD is recycled in South Africa. Its strength and durability make it ideal for products that need to withstand wear and tear. For more info on the recycling of PE-HD visit

3. PVC – Polyvinyl chloride

The symbol with a 3 represents PVC – a sturdy and hard plastic polymer. It is used to create irrigation pipes, tamper-proof medicine seals, shrink-wrapping, conduit, toys, plastic gutters and more. PVC is quite difficult to recycle and requires special machinery. Many small-scale recyclers in South Africa cannot process PVC, so plastics manufacturers have started to replace PVC products with PET. For more information visit

4. PE-LD (or LDPE) – Low-density polyethylene

The identification code with a 4 is used for PE-LD plastics and products such as grocery bags, packets, cling film, bubble wrap and sandwich bags. PE-LD is a flexible polymer that is widely recycled in South Africa. Previously, this type of plastic could jam the sorting machines at recycling facilities, but this is not often the case anymore.  For more info on the recycling of PE-HD visit

5. PP – Polypropylene

The symbol with a 5 depicts PP plastic. This is a temperature-resistant polymer that is used to manufacture ice cream containers, kettles, straws, microwave dishes, garden furniture, bottle caps and takeaway cutlery. PP is also commonly recycled in South Africa.  For more info on the recycling of PP visit

6. PS – Polystyrene

The code with a 6 is used for polystyrene. There are two types of PS – expanded PS and a hardened PS. Expanded PS is the foam-like material used to make packaging fillers and takeaway food containers. The hardened PS is used to manufacture coathangers, bread tags and yoghurt cups. PS is accepted by recycling facilities in South Africa. Visit for more information

7. Other

The symbol with a 7 is used to denote any other type of plastic polymer. The symbol will display a range of acronyms beneath the triangle, such as ABS, E/VAC, POM, PC, PETG, PA and a combination of these acronyms. Plastics with this code are often made from a mixture of polymers which makes them difficult to recycle, or not recyclable at all.   Many of these plastics are used in plastic timber manufacture where they are combined with wood shavings to produce jungle gyms, walkways which will last for years despite weather conditions, outdoor furniture etc.

In South Africa, materials are only recycled if there is a suitable end-market for the recyclate. These identification codes are used by recyclers to sort the plastics into similar batches for processing.

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PE-HD plastic packaging successes

High-density polyethylene (PE-HD) is the third most-widely recycled polymer in South Africa. This plastic is strong, scratch-resistant and non-toxic, making it ideal for use in the beverage and packaging industry. PE-HD is an abundant material and is quite easy to recycle in South Africa. It can be turned into numerous recycled products, making it a valuable polymer that can be reused again and again.

South Africa has some of the highest recycling rates in the world – 63 038 tonnes of PE-HD plastic was recycled in 2018 alone. Of this volume, most of the PE-HD plastic came in the form of milk bottles, plastic crates and plastic drums. These materials are mainly recycled into carrier bags for grocery stores and supermarket chains.

PE-HD plastic recycling is a successful industry

PE-HD recyclate is currently in high demand due to its durability. Although recycled PE-HD is not suitable for food contact applications (like the virgin polymer is), there is a great need for the recyclate in the agricultural industry. The main bulk of PE-HD recyclate is used to manufacture irrigation pipes, feeding troughs, fence poles and weather covers for the farming sector.

PE-HD can also be recycled into various flexible packaging products, including bin liners, recycled grocery bags and wood bags. The mining industry also accounts for a large portion of PE-HD recyclate, followed by the rigid packaging and construction sectors. This polymer has a variety of uses as a recycled material in various industries in South Africa.

PE-HD has a number of beneficial properties

PE-HD is an ideal packaging material because of its unique properties. It is produced from the polymerisation of ethylene at high temperatures, making it dense and robust. It is a highly crystalline polymer with strong bonds between molecules. These properties make PE-HD a dense plastic with high strength, high temperature resistance and excellent chemical resistance.

PE-HD has excellent corrosion and scratch resistance, making it ideal for products that need to withstand wear and tear or contain harsh chemicals. It is a lightweight and non-toxic plastic that lends itself to many applications in the packaging industry and a number of other sectors. These properties make PE-HD a popular plastic polymer. It is widely recycled in South Africa thanks to our strong and resilient recycling industry.


Plastics SA represents all sectors of the South African plastics industry. ​Together with our associations, we play an active role in the growth and development of the industry and strive to address plastics related issues, influence role-players and make plastics the material of choice.

​Plastics SA has been mandated to ensure a vibrant and sustainable plastics industry in South Africa. The plastics sector is uniquely placed to meet the needs of a sustainable society and to deliver solutions to many challenges such as recycling, climate change, water scarcity, resource usage and energy recovery.

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