How are plastics recycled?
Plastic is one of the most popular and useful materials of modern times: we now use about 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago. Its popularity and widespread use is why handling it responsibly and correctly once it becomes waste is so vitally important. We can optimise the lifespan of plastics by re-using and recycling items as many times as possible.
Did you know?
- 99% of all UK local authorities now offer collection facilities for plastic bottles either through your household recycling collection or at recycling centres.
What about other plastics?
Mixed plastics packaging (trays, tubs, pots, films etc) can also be mechanically recycled, and it is both economically and environmentally effective to do so. Infrastructure for the collection, sorting and reprocessing of these valuable resources has increased in the UK in recent years.
Currently, 79% of councils collect other rigid plastic packaging such as pots, tubs and trays in household recycling collections.
Enter your postcode into Recycling Locator tool to find out which plastics your council collects.
How is it recycled?
- Sorted by polymer type
- Made into new products.
It is a two-stage process:
- Sorting is mainly done automatically with a manual sort to ensure all contaminants have been removed
- Once sorted and cleaned, plastic can either be shredded into flakes or melt processed to form pellets before finally being moulded into new products.
Plastic is a popular and highly versitile material, and we use a lot of it. Optimising the lifespan of plastics by re-using and recycling items as many times as possible, for example, by recycling used plastic bottles into new ones, we can therefore reduce our need to create new plastic.
This means we can:
- conserve non-renewable fossil fuels (oil)
- reduce the consumption of energy used in the production of new plastic
- reduce the amount of solid waste going to landfill
- reduce emission of gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Problems and issues
There are many different types of plastic in use, some of which we can recycle in the UK and other types – including that used to make flexible pouches and black microwaveable trays – which will require new technology before we are able to recycle it effectively. This means that some plastic still goes to landfill, some is incinerated and some shipped abroad for recycling.
There are currently large investments being made in Britain to help our domestic plastic recycling sector cope with the variety of plastics in use and it won't be long before we operate a more efficient recycling system for all different types of plastic packaging.
In the meantime we can all do our bit to improve things now. Recycling plastic bottles is one easy way to help. They are usually made from two easily recyclable plastics – PET and HDPE – and can be recycled by most of us via our household recycling collections or local recycling centres.
Made from recycled
There is a wide range of products made from recycled plastic including:
- refuse sacks and carrier bags
- underground drainage systems for homes and national infrastructure
- flower pots, seed trays, watering cans and water butts
- wheel arch liners and bumpers on cars
- damp proof membranes, guttering and window profiles used in construction
- reusable crates and pallets
- wheel bins and food caddies
- composters and wormeries
- drinks bottles and food trays
- polyester fabric for clothing.
The different types of plastic
You may notice symbols on plastic packaging explaining the type of plastic they're made of and how to recycle them. Read Packaging symbols explained for more information.
You may have seen an increase in businesses moving to different types of plastic packaging, but knowing your bio-plastics from your biodegradable plastics can be very confusing.
Plastic can be made from fossil-based or bio-based materials. Both can be used to make highly durable, non-biogradable plastics, or plastics which either biodegrade or compost.
Fact: Just because a plastic is made from bio-based sources, does not automatically mean it will biodegrade!
Only non-biodegradable plastic can be recycled, regardless of whether it is fossil-based or bio-based. Enter your postcode into our Recycling Locator tool to find out which plastics your council collects.
Compostable plastics can be composted at industrial scale composting facilities, so you can put these in with your green waste but only if it goes to one of these facilities - your council will be able to tell you where your green waste goes.
Some compostable plastics can also be home composted and should be clearly labelled if this is the case. Compostable plastics should not go in with your dry recycling as they cannot be recycled in the same way as non-biodegradable plastic.
Biodegradable plastics also cannot be recycled in the same way as non-biodegradable plastics. Some can be composted, but not all, and should be clearly labelled if this is the case.
Biodegradable packaging should be clearly labelled as such, and should not go in with your dry recycling.