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Types of Plastics You Can and Can't Recycle

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

As a nation, we consume a plethora of products on a daily basis, most of which are packaged in plastic. From foods and drinks to toiletries and cleaning products, we're constantly bombarded with plastic packaging; 275,000 tonnes of the stuff each year to be precise! And unfortunately, most of these are single use plastics; you cannot reuse or recycle them.

National Geographic recently revealed that 91 percent of all plastics have never been recycled [1].

However, it's not all doom and gloom. There are plastics which we can recycle - and doing so will have a tremendously positive impact on our environment.

But how can you tell which plastics can be recycled and which can't?

Recycling rates in the UK have come a long way and continue to grow year on year.  For example, in the year 2000 only 13,000 tonnes of plastic bottles got recycled [1]; the UK now recycles over 350,000 tonnes a year [2].

Recycling Plastics: What to Look Out For

When it comes to recycling, we know that not all plastics are created equal. Which is why our local councils ask us to sort through our waste; some plastics can be reprocessed while others cannot.

However, thanks to misleading information - or none at all! - packaging manufacturers and local authorities don't make it easy for us to tell which products can be recycled and which can't.

It also doesn't help that recycling plants across the UK have different facilities to reclaim different types of plastic. So, what you might readily be able to recycle in Wales, you might not be able to in Oxfordshire.

Plastic Recycling Tip #1 - Check with Your Local Council

Find out exactly what your local council can and can not recycle by visiting their website; a list of which can be found here.

Why Do Different Councils Recycle Different Things?

Local councils have the authority to decide what will be collected for recycling and what won't be. Often, they base their decision on two things; firstly, how much money they'll make by selling all the collected materials to waste management companies, and secondly, what specific materials those nearby recycling facilities can actually process. Hence why some local authorities can provide a better recycling collection service than others; because they get better prices for the waste they collect and the local waste management plants who buy it all have more innovative technologies to recycle a wider range of plastics.

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) would like the recycling system across the UK to be greatly simplified to make recycling less confusing for consumers and to achieve higher recycling rates.

So, how can you tell which plastics can be recycled near you?

Being eco-friendly would be so much simpler if it was mandatory for packaging manufacturers to mark their plastics in a way which signifies whether their products can be recycled or not. Unfortunately, though, this isn't the case. However, there are clues you can look for to help you on your Earth-conscious recycling career.

Plastic Recycling Tip #2 - Look for On-Pack Recycling Labels

After checking with your local council about what you can and can't recycle, another way to tell whether you're putting the right things into your recycling bin is to check whether your plastic packaging has the On-Pack Recycling Label on it. This easy to spot information will tell you whether an item can be recycled or not and usually, if the packaging consists of different elements (for example a film lid and a plastic pot), the OPRL will tell you how to recycle each component.

The OPRL may also tell you that you need to check whether the item can be recycled locally. To do this, you can of course get in touch with or visit your local council's website, but you can also use the Recycle Now website too - which is our plastic recycling tip #3!

The recycling logo can be a little misleading – just about anything can be recycled, but sometimes not without major effort.

Plastic Recycling Tip #4 - Look for a Resin Identification Code

If your plastic packaging does not have an On-pack Recycling Label, the next thing you can do to work out whether your plastic can be recycled or not is to see whether it has one of these symbols somewhere on it (usually on the base):

As you can see on the graphic, stamped inside the center of each symbol is a number between 1 and 7. This little number is what's known as a Resin Identification Code. It tells the workers in your local recycling plant what kinds of plastic they're sorting and how they should be processed. These codes also help recycling collectors determine which plastic products they can accept (as not all recycling plants have the facilities to recycle certain plastics) and which ones will need to go to landfill.

If a plastic product has neither an On-Pack Recycling Label or a Resin Identification Code, consider this to be a single use plastic that needs to go in your waste bin.

Numbers 1 (PETE) and 2 (HDPE) are readily recycled through local authority collections and national recycling points, so if you see any plastic packaging with these numbers on, rinse them clean and bob them in your recycling bin.

Numbers 4 (LDPE), 5 (PP) and 7 (OTHER) are plastic products which you might be able to recycle but you'll have to check with your local council first; either by contacting them via phone or e-mail or by checking their website. Find your local council's website here.

Numbers 3 (PVC) and 6 (PS) are not readily recycled for the general population (although some local councils might be able to), but there are companies who can re-purpose this type of waste on a large, commercial scale. Whilst it might be worth contacting these companies to see whether they would accept and collect your PVC and polystyrene items, on the whole, these types of plastic will usually end up in your waste bin.

What you can; possibly and can't recycle
Readily recycled; possibly recyclable (check with your local council), and not recycled (at the moment)

Plastic Recycling Tip #5 - Judge a Book by Its Cover: How to Tell Whether Plastic Can be Recycled by Its Appearance and Uses

What can be recycled

PETE - 1

Polyethylene terephthalate is a plastic resin and form of polyester. When transformed into packaging, it becomes the most common type of plastic on the market.

Transparent, shatterproof and non-toxic, it's highly recyclable; posing minimal risks of leaching breakdown products back into our soils and waterways. That's why 94 percent of all UK councils now collect PETE plastics from curbsides and recycling drop off points.

Usually, PETE products come in the forms of drinks bottles (i.e. Coca Cola and water); plastic jars (i.e. SunPat peanut butter), cosmetics packaging (i.e. transparent pump lotion dispensers, but not the actual pump itself), mouthwash; shower gel and shampoo bottles, and transparent or light-coloured ready meal trays, etc.

Whilst this type of plastic is fully recyclable, products and packaging made from them are only intended for one time use; this is particularly important regarding drinks bottles in hot countries: they should never be refilled or reused. This is because studies have shown that trace amounts of antimony (a toxic chemical) can leach from the plastic when placed in or near heat for prolonged periods of time.

PETE plastics can be recycled into polar fleeces, tote bags, carpets, bottles, food containers and furniture, etc.

HDPE - 2

High density polyethylene items such as milk bottles, toiletry bottles, margarine tubs and cereal box liners are also highly recyclable. 92 percent of UK councils now collect these types of plastic products. Although, it is worth noting that there are some other forms of HDPE which some waste disposal sites and recycling plants cannot reclaim due to sorting issues.

HDPE plastics can be recycled into bins; pipes, detergent bottles, pens and floor tiles.

LDPE - 4

Low density polyethylene plastics such as carrier bags, sauce bottles, juice boxes, smoothie cartons, and bread bags are now beginning to be recycled across the UK. It's worth noting, however, that some local councils still can't accept this type of packaging because at present they do not have the facilities to recycle mixed plastics.

Those waste management sites where LDPE can be recycled can turn these plastic products into bin liners; toys, gas pipes, insulation, plastic lumber and floor tiles.

PP - 5

You'll find polypropylene plastics in a variety of food and drinks packaging like yogurt pots, plastic cups, microwavable plastic containers and lids (like the ones you get from your takeaway), bottle caps, drinking straws, baby bottles and carrier bags.

Like LDPE plastics, you can recycle polypropylene if your local authority has the facility to reprocess this type of resin.

PP can be recycled into buckets, battery cases, washing machine drums, brooms, traffic lights and pallets.

What can't be recycled... at the moment

PVC - 3

PVC plastics such as clear food packaging; cooking oil bottles, cling film, credit cards, shower curtains, faux leather clothing, floor tiles and toys are rarely recycled. This does not mean to say they can't be; there are some plastic lumber makers who will collect large amounts of waste PVC to create new plastic products such as decking; garden furniture, mud flaps, cables and speed bumps, etc. However, at present, for the general public in the UK, there are little to no collection facilities to recycle PVC.

PS - 6

Polystyrene, such as takeaway cartons, Styrofoam cups, meat and vegetable trays, egg cartons and packing peanuts are not generally recycled. However, clean and sterile Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is actually 100 percent recyclable in the sense that clean material can be reused to make new polystyrene products and slightly contaminated EPS can be compacted and transformed into new, rigid plastic products.

Like PVC, the general public in the UK have very little opportunity to recycle polystyrene, however, there are a handful of councils and companies who will accept it, typically on a large, commercial scale.

PS plastics can be re-purposed into insulation, stationery and foam packaging.

How to Recycle Plastics - The Conclusion

We know that working out what types of plastic you can and can't recycle can be frustrating. But however baffling, you should not be disheartened with your plight to save our planet; recycling what (little) we can now, still helps us and the Earth in the long run.

We need to continue recycling - and to wait for advancements in waste management technologies to improve and revitalise the recycling industry - so that we can all save energy; decrease our need and reliance on raw materials, and help to protect our wildlife and the environment as much as we can.

With Earth-conscious lifestyle changes, we can make a difference. And with the following tips and tools for recycling plastics, the difference, over time, will be a big one.

Recap: Five ways to tell whether the plastic you have can or can't be recycled

Tip #1 - Take the time to learn what your local council will and will not collect. Remember, all local authorities provide different recycling collections services. You can find this information on your local council's website typically under "Recycling & Waste". Click here for a directory of all councils in England and Wales.

Tip #2 - Look out for On-Pack Recycling Labels.

Tip #3 - Check out the Recycle Now website for your local recycling options and other recycling tips.

Tip #4 - Look out for Resin Identification Codes.

Tip #5 - Learn what you can and can't currently recycle based on the types of packaging each different type of plastic makes.

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