Plastic recycling: Your guide on what plastics can be recycled

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recycling plastic

In recent years, plastic has become an integral part of our society. Characterised by a short cycle of use but a very long life cycle, plastic has negative impacts on the environment. In this guide, we explain all you need to know about plastic recycling such as can you recycle plastic bags, and what plastic can be recycled in the UK.

What is plastic recycling?

Plastic recycling refers to the process of recovering waste or scrap plastic and reprocessing the materials into functional and useful products. This activity is known as the plastic recycling process. Most councils across the UK provide plastic recycling schemes either through kerbside collection or providing container bins to dispose of plastics - usually found at recycling centres and outside other public services such as leisure centres.

The aim of recycling plastic is to reduce high rates of plastic pollution while reducing the need to make brand new plastic products. By recycling plastic, we can collectively conserve resources, reduce plastics from landfill, and prevent it from ending up in unintended destinations such as rivers, streams and oceans, which is hugely damaging to the environment.

How many times can plastic be recycled?According to National Geographic, plastic loses some of its quality every time it is recycled. Therefore, it should only be recycled around 2-3 times.

Facts about recycling plastic

As society becomes increasingly aware of tackling global warming, more is being done to recycle and live in a more sustainable manner. According to figures published by the British Plastics Federation, in 2000, just 13,000 tonnes of plastic bottles were recycled in the UK. Today, that figure has risen to 380,000 tonnes. To further highlight the importance of plastic recycling, here are some interesting facts about recycling:

  • 77% of all drinks bottles in the UK are recycled;
  • Recycling five plastic bottles creates enough insulating fibre to fill a ski jacket;
  • We use 13 billion carrier bags in the UK each year. Most of these are plastic shopping bags and once thrown away can take up to 100 years to decompose;
  • Most UK households throw away around 40kg of plastic each year. Enough to make 10 recycle bins.

What is the British Plastics Federation?Founded in 1933, the BPF is the longest-running plastics trade association in the world. The group works with its members and policy makers on a range of initiatives to reduce energy, increase recycling and prevent litter.

What plastics can be recycled?

There are many different types of plastic used for different products. In theory, all plastics can be recycled although it can depend on economic and logistical factors. In the UK, the two most used plastics are known as PET and HDPE, used to make soft drinks bottles and milk bottles. Most durable plastic can also be recycled through a process known as ‘mechanical recycling’. This is when the plastic is broken down but its chemical structure is not altered. A relatively new type of plastic recycling is also used today - chemical recycling. In this process, the chemical structure of plastic is altered.

The seven types of plastic

plastic recycling symbols

To recycle plastic waste properly, you must first know how to recognise the different types of plastic that exist. To do this, the plastics industry introduced a classification of plastics that allows consumers to recognise what plastic can be recycled.

What numbers of plastic are recyclable?The plastics identification chart should make recycling and sorting your plastic a bit easier. Look at the number inside the triangle on your plastic item. It will contain a number ranging from one to seven. This will tell you both the type of plastic used and which type is recyclable or even reusable.

What plastics can be recycled uk?
Type of plastic Name Used for
1. PET Polyethylene terephthalate Water bottles, soft and fizzy drink bottles, pots, tubs, oven-ready trays, jam jars.
2. HDPE High-density polyethylene Chemical drums, toys, picnic ware, household and kitchenware, cable insulation, carrier bags, food wrapping material.
3. PVC Polyvinyl chloride Window frames, drainage pipe, water service pipe, medical devices, blood storage bags, cable and wire insulation, resilient flooring, roofing membranes, stationery, automotive interiors and seat coverings, fashion and footwear, packaging, cling film, credit cards, synthetic leather and other coated fabrics.
4. LDPE Low-density polyethylene Squeeze bottles, toys, plastic bags, chemical tank linings, heavy-duty sacks, general packaging, gas and water pipes.
5. PP Polypropylene Buckets, crates, toys, medical components, washing machine drums, bottle caps, and battery cases.
6. PS Polystyrene Toys and novelties, hard plastic packaging, refrigerator trays and boxes, cosmetic packs and costume jewellery.
7. Others Other types of plastics  

Did you know that around 8 million tonnes of the world’s plastics end up in our oceans each year, creating a rubbish patch about six times the size of the UK?

Source:The Ocean Cleanup.

How is plastic recycled in the UK?

There are a number of steps in the process of recycling plastic in the UK although it may differ slightly depending on what type of plastic is being recycled. The most typical process involves:

how is plastic recycled
  1. Collection: The first stage of the recycling process involves the collection of plastics from our homes, businesses, schools and other locations. To help with the next steps in the process it is important that we recycle correctly;
  2. Sorting: Plastic recycling is separated from other materials. This is done at a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). It may then go onto a Plastic Recovery Facility (PRF) for further sorting into the different types of plastic;
  3. Washing: Washing helps remove labels, waste left in containers, and any food waste. Washing is an important stage in the process because how clean the plastic is can affect the quality of the finished recycled product;
  4. Shredding: The washed and sorted plastic is sent through a plastic recycling machine for shredding into smaller pieces of plastic;
  5. Melting and made into pellets: The shredded plastic is then melted down and made into small pellets. Pellets are then sold onto manufacturers;
  6. Reuse: The final stage of the process of recycling plastic is to mould the pellets into new products for reuse.

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How do supermarkets play a role in recycling plastic?

The UK’s biggest supermarkets are leading the way when it comes to plastic recycling. It followed on from a David Attenborough climate change documentary in 2018 highlighting the issue of plastic waste, particularly in supermarkets and the supply chain. Tesco plastic bag recycling and Sainsbury's plastic bag recycling schemes have already been in place for some time. These schemes involve either paying for plastic bags or using reusable long-life carrier bags.

However, the supermarket giants have also put in place a number of other initiatives to further reduce their use of plastic. In the following section we’ll look at some of those schemes.

Tesco recycling initiatives

  • As part of its ‘four Rs’ strategy (Remove, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), Tesco pledged to remove one billion pieces of plastic from products for sale in UK stores by the end of 2020;
  • It has removed plastic shrink wrap around branded and own-label tinned multipacks saving 67 million pieces of plastic;
  • Plastic trays from sausage rolls and slices have disappeared – saving over 24 million pieces of plastic;
  • Christmas crackers no longer contain plastic gifts – saving over 300 million pieces of plastic;
  • Small plastic bags are no longer used to pack loose fruit, vegetables and bakery items;
  • In addition to removing single-use plastic pieces from its supply chain, it also reduced the amount of plastic used on the packaging for its fruit juices, crisps and cheese. The supermarket reduced the size of its annual packaging footprint by 3,480 tonnes in 2020.

Sainsbury's recycling initiatives

  • Sainsbury's has introduced flexible recycling schemes and installed reverse vending machines for customers to return plastic items to be recycled;
  • The supermarket announced plans to work with Prevented Ocean Plastic to turn plastic collected from the coast into packaging for its strawberry and fresh fish range, removing 297 tonnes of plastic from entering the ocean each year;
  • It has also been working hard to remove plastic items from its products and supply chain, such as getting rid of 18.5 million plastic straws from its own brand lunch box carton range.

Plastic recycling near meIf you do a search online for your nearest plastic recyling point, your local authority will provide you with all the information you need about where to take it.

The benefits of recycling plastic

benefits of recyling plastic

Recycling plastic is seen as a key way to reduce the environmental impact and costs across many sectors in the UK including retail, manufacturing and construction. There are many benefits to recycling plastic, including:

  • It provides a sustainable source of raw materials to the industry;
  • Greatly reduces the environmental impact of plastic products;
  • Minimises the amount of plastic being sent to UK’s landfill;
  • Consumes less energy than producing new, virgin polymers;
  • It embeds the right values and behaviour when it comes to attitudes towards recycling, especially if businesses include it as part of their corporate governance strategy.