Recycling & Re-use

How to recycle better: Part 2 (how to deal with different plastics)

In March, I posted the first in a series of three about how to get kerbside recycling right. It’s trickier than you’d expect. Now for Part 2 the focus is on different types of plastics. Do you know your PETs from your LDPEs? If not, read on….

In January 2020, RECOUP, a UK plastics recycling charity, released its 2019 UK Plastics Collection Survey Report. Did you know our plastics recycling collection stats aren’t all that great? For plastic bottles is 59%. For plastic pots, tubs and trays it’s 31% and for plastic film it’s just 5% per cent. The biggest challenge faced by Councils in this area is contamination.

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) has an interesting FAQ section on its website about plastics recycling – see here. It flags that the UK’s recycling rate for plastic packaging is the tenth highest in Europe out of 30 countries. So some progress is being made. But there’s plenty more to do.

A horrible amount of plastic still goes to landfill or ends up in our oceans and on our beaches. Have you been to a UK coast recently? Did you notice any? I remember when I went to Chesil Beach in Dorset last year, there were piles of plastic waste everywhere. Empty drinks bottles, cleaning bottles, food pots and loads of other containers. Most of these had washed up on the beach, having being dumped at sea.

So how can we make sure plastics that already exist are re-used and not discarded? The first step is knowing what the seven different plastic classifications mean. These are shown on plastic packaging as a triangular symbol with a number in the centre. Sometimes you need to search quite hard to find them. Usually they are imprinted into the plastic somewhere inconspicuous.

Now, just like the nasty green dot symbol – see Part 1, the triangular shape of the classification symbol and arrows around it does not automatically mean the material is recyclable. Nor does it mean it was made from recycled materials. In fact, the arrows are meaningless so beware!

Here’s a list of the plastic classification numbers, examples of types of packaging/products they’re commonly used for as well as whether or not they are accepted in most UK kerbside recycling collections.

Widely accepted kerbside

1 (PET)  Thin, often clear plastic e.g. single use drinks bottles, some yoghurt pots, plastic fruit punnets

May be accepted kerbside – check with your Council

2 (HDPE)  Stiffer bottles and containers e.g. for loo cleaner, milk and some shampoos and shower gels

5 (PP)  Semi-rigid, tough but flexible plastic e.g. take away tubs, sauce bottles, packing tape

Not accepted kerbside

3 (PVC or V)  Flexible and durable plastic e.g. clingfilm, hoses and some toys

4 (LDPE)  Flexible plastice.g. carrier bags, drinks rings, bread bags, cereal packets, hand cream tubes

6 (PS)  Polystyrene – two types: (i) hard e.g. some yoghurt pots, plastic forks and (ii) expanding e.g. takeaway trays

7 (OTHER)  Composite materials, layered resins and other difficult-to-recycle plastics e.g. crisp bags, fajita tortilla packets

*Note: Many LDPE plastic bags can be dropped off at supermarket collection points

So, the baddies to watch out for, ideally before you buy, are classifications 3, 6 and 7. It’s easy to look at packaging in advance to get a feel for this so you can avoid.

If you’re unsure what plastic classifications can be added to your kerbside collection, the BPF has a useful plastics recycling locator tool on its website. Most Councils are pretty similar. If your Council doesn’t accept certain plastics for kerbside collection, then your next best bet is a local recycling centre or  TerraCycle scheme.

Some other points to note:

  • All pumps should be removed from bottles e.g. handsoaps and cosmetic bottles as these are not recyclable via kerbside collection. They are accepted in the TerraCycle beauty scheme.
  • Triggers on things like kitchen, bathroom sprays and labels can be left on.
  • Plastic film (e.g. covering meat trays) should be ripped off and put in the general rubbish bin.
  • All bottles and containers should be emptied and rinsed before recycling and ideally squashed with the lids put back on (non-empty bottles can disrupt the automated sorting process and leaks can damage machinery).

Finally, a quick flag about black plastic. Although in technical terms this can be recycled, the lasers in most UK Council machinery can’t properly detect it, so it tends to end up in landfill. But because black plastic is made from recycled plastics, many producers continue to use it. Thankfully, some UK supermarkets have been phasing it out, in favour of coloured recycled plastics which are accepted in most kerbside collections.

Finally, although recycling plastics thoughtfully and properly is really important, reducing plastic use wherever you can has to be the priority. Do you use refill options for repeat plastic offenders like laundry liquid and cleaning products? If not, I recommend giving it a try. Especially if you have a good zero waste shop nearby.

Hopefully once the pandemic ends, unpackaged, refillable plastic-free shopping will gain more traction. Waitrose’s recent trial of packaging-free, self-serve items known as Waitrose Unpacked  is worth watching. This launched in the Oxford store in June 2019 and was extended last August to Abington, Cheltenham and Wallingford. Feedback has been very positive. I’m planning to visit the one in Cheltenham when the lockdown ends. I’ll be sure to report back!

I hope this post helps you to navigate the tricky world of plastic recycling more smoothly and inspires you to get it right and also buy less plastic packaged items in the first place. If you have any tips or feedback, please do leave a comment below.

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