Whilst glass and metal can be infinitely recycled, plastic is a tricky one. The type of plastic has everything to do with it, along with technical, logistical and economic factors. The recycling process isn’t as simple as the simple signs on packaging would have you believe!
Plastic is a finite and incredibly valuable resource, so in theory, it makes sense to recycle everything – right? Recycling rates in the UK grow year on year – rising from 13,000 tonnes of plastic in 2000 to nearly 380,000 a year now. But we’re still at a point where the price of recycling for reuse vs the price of manufacturing new plastics has a lot to do with whether or not things get recycled.
So, which plastics actually can and will be recycled?
Which plastic can be recycled?
The creation of the Resin Identification Code (RIC) in 1988 makes it easy to identify what type of plastic you’re looking at and whether or not that plastic is recyclable in your area. The RIC is the number within a triangle of arrows that appears on most plastic as a guide to how you should dispose of it. The symbol is often recognised as “the recycling symbol”, but not every piece of plastic with it on will actually be recyclable in every area.
There are seven specific RIC codes, including:
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – drinks bottles and cups
- High-density Polyethylene (HDPE) – bottles, cups and milk jugs
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – rigid plastics like pipes and tubes
- Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE) – beer six-pack fasteners and plastic bags
- Polypropylene (PP) – food containers and some plastic car parts
- Polystyrene (PS) – take-away food containers, drinks cups and some plastic utensils
- Other – a general-purpose category for acrylic, nylon and other plastics
It tends to be true that the lower the number, the more likely that the particular plastic product is recyclable. PET and HDPE are the two most widely recycled plastics, but durable plastic can often also be recycled.
In terms of what it’s possible to get taken away in recycling bins every other week, local councils and what they accept for recycling has everything to do with it. Not every area has the same investment in recycling, so some places may have a more limited range of what plastics they will accept.
The good news is that 100% of local authorities collect commonly recycled plastics like plastic bottles, and 85% collect pots, tubs and trays. However, not all of these plastics that are collected will actually make it to recycling centres. The main reason for this is that the plastic is too dirty or degraded to recycle.
Why are some plastics not recyclable?
Aside from dirty plastic not making it to recycling, there are other reasons plastic might head to landfill or incineration instead. First, it’s important to understand how the recycling process works.
Traditional recycling is typically mechanical, and the plastic is physically broken down but not chemically altered. This is the oldest recycling technology and doesn’t work for every kind of plastic. There’s also chemical recycling, which is relatively new. Chemical recycling does alter the structure of the plastic and means that batches of all types of plastic can be recycled together, even back into food-grade packaging.
However, whether or not a plastic product can be recycled unfortunately is dependent on more than just the material; it’s also dependent on the market and the local government. Not every local authority has the money to invest in recycling schemes, and in these areas it’s not economically effective to recycle all forms of plastic.
For example, plastic films, plastic wrapping and thin plastic bags run the risk of clogging processing machinery if they are collected along with larger, heavier and more rigid recyclable plastics, which is why it’s important that they don’t get put in plastic recycling bins unless they are acceptable. If local councils accept all recycling even if they can’t actually recycle that product, it can make recycling efforts more difficult for other types of plastic too.
The good news is that buying habits actually make a difference. If there’s demand in the market for packaging/products to be recyclable/recycled, it’s more likely that recyclers and companies will pay for post-consumer recycling and recyclables, which results in public investment in recycling systems.
However, without this market demand, many lesser-recycled plastic products are unlikely to become widely recycled and they will likely continue to be sent to landfill or incinerated. Unless it’s possible to boost profits or turnover by using recycled/recyclable materials, then many companies will continue to prioritise low-cost production over environmental value.
As it stands, it’s cheaper to manufacture or purchase new plastics than to buy into the recyclables supply chain. Societal changes and government support are the best way to make a change, as subsidies/investments and public support will go a long way.
Straws and plastic bags are a perfect example. Whilst regular plastic bags and straws are too cheap to manufacture to be worth recycling, public pressure has ensured many recyclable or sustainable options have come to the forefront instead.
Why recycle plastic in the first place?
Whilst it seems like recycling is the bare minimum we can do for the environment, there are a lot of people who doubt its effectiveness. However, recycling is widely accepted as a key way in reducing not only production costs but also environmental impact across every single industry.
Funneling waste into efficient recycling and recovery is the ideal solution to plastic pollution, as plastic is a valuable, resource-efficient material that is widely used. Recycling plastic:
- Minimises the amount of plastic being sent to already over-used landfills
- Provides a largely sustainable source of new plastics for manufacturing, whilst avoiding consumption of crude oil in the production of new plastic
- Consumes less energy (and oil) than producing new (un-recycled) plastics
- Reduces the environmental impact of the continued use of plastic products
If you are a brand looking to make a positive change by incorporating recyclable packaging into your product ranges, Tyler Packaging can help. We specialise in sustainable packaging solutions made from paper and plastic, suitable for human food, pet food, garden & leisure and industrial products.