Seven groups of plastic polymers,[23] each with specific properties, are used worldwide for packaging applications (see table below). Each group of plastic polymer can be identified by its Plastic Identification code (PIC) – usually a number or a letter abbreviation. For instance, Low-Density Polyethylene can be identified by the number 4 and/or the letters “LDPE”. The PIC appears inside a three-chasing arrow recycling symbol. The symbol is used to indicate whether the plastic can be recycled into new products.

The PIC was introduced by the Society of the Plastics Industry, Inc. which provides a uniform system for the identification of different polymer types and helps recycling companies to separate different plastics for reprocessing. Manufacturers of plastic products are required to use PIC labels in some countries/regions [24] and can voluntarily mark their products with the PIC where there are no requirements. Consumers can identify the plastic types based on the codes usually found at the base or at the side of the plastic products, including food/chemical packaging and containers. The PIC is usually not present on packaging films, as it is not practical to collect and recycle most of this type of waste.
Plastic Identification Code Type of plastic polymer Properties Common Packaging Applications
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE) Clarity, strength, toughness, barrier to gas and moisture. Soft drink, water and salad dressing bottles; peanut butter and jam jars
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) Stiffness, strength, toughness, resistance to moisture, permeability to gas. Water pipes, Hula-Hoop (children’s game) rings, Milk, juice and water bottles; the occasional shampoo / toiletry bottle
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Versatility, clarity, ease of blending, strength, toughness. Juice bottles; cling films; PVC piping
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) Ease of processing, strength, toughness, flexibility, ease of sealing, barrier to moisture. Frozen food bags; squeezable bottles, e.g. honey, mustard; cling films; flexible container lids.
Polypropylene (PP) Strength, toughness, resistance to heat, chemicals, grease and oil, versatile, barrier to moisture. Reusable microwaveable ware; kitchenware; yogurt containers; margarine tubs; microwaveable disposable take-away containers; disposable cups; plates.
Polystyrene (PS) Versatility, clarity, easily formed Egg cartons; packing peanuts; disposable cups, plates, trays and cutlery; disposable take-away containers;
Other (often polycarbonate or ABS) Dependent on polymers or combination of polymers Beverage bottles; baby milk bottles; electronic casing.