Dec 18, 2019

This article was originally published on as part of the series ‘Sustainability Unwrapped’ sponsored by Henkel.

Plastic recycling: a guide to the myths and realities


By David Benady

With 40,000 types of plastic and varying advice on how to recycle it, there’s much to learn. From deciphering symbols to dealing with carrier bags, here’s how to get your recycling right

Recycling plastics is a daily guessing game for most householders. Cardboard, paper, metal and glass can all be tossed straight into the recycling bin if they are clean and free from grease and stains. But plastic is complicated. There is no end of fallacies and misconceptions about which pieces of plastic packaging go in the recycling bin and which are general waste. Don’t rely on the myths about plastic recycling – get your facts straight and you too can recycle.

Approximately 8bn tonnes of plastic have been produced since the 1950s, and most of that exists somewhere on the planet because it takes thousands of years to degrade. Of the 5.8bn tonnes of plastic no longer in use, only 9% has been recycled.

Almost half of all the plastic produced each year is used for product packaging. From shampoo bottles to tubs of yogurt, Europeans each produce an average of 31kg of plastic waste a year. But what should we do with it? Throw it in the recycling bin? Chuck it in the waste? Or take it to a recycling centre? To clear up the confusion, here is a guide to the myths and realities of plastic recycling.

Symbol myth 1: The green dot symbol on packaging means the product is made of recycled material or can be put in the recycling bin.
Wrong. This logo is used purely to show that the producer of the packaging has made a financial contribution to its recycling or reuse.

Symbol myth 2: The “widely recycled” logo is the same as the green dot symbol.
No. This one means that the packaging is recycled by 75% or more of the UK’s local authorities. You’ll need to research your council’s recycling facilities to find out more.

Symbol myth 3: The numbers in a triangle mean the product is always recyclable.
No. There are some 40,000 types of plastic and the industry fits these into seven broad recycling categories. Most plastic packaging carries a triangular logo with a number from one to seven inside, denoting the chemical composition of the plastic. If it’s a 1, 2 or 5, most councils commonly recycle it. Number 4 is sometimes recycled. But 3, 6, and 7 are almost never recycled.

Symbol myth 4: The Mobius loop on packaging means it can be recycled.
Nope. This symbol of three arrows making up a triangle simply denotes that some or all parts of the packaging can be recycled, not that it will be accepted by all systems.

Myth: All local authorities accept plastic recycling.
Reality: Local authorities have different capabilities for recycling and have their own rules on which plastics they accept in kerbside recycling. Householders should check with their local authority for details about what they can put in the recycling bin.

Myth: You can’t recycle all plastic bottles.
Not so fast – all clear and coloured plastic bottles are recyclable, as are water bottles, shampoo containers, cleaning product bottles and those for fizzy drinks. Even so, a minority of councils refuse to accept them. The only plastic bottles that can’t be recycled are those that are used for chemicals. Which leads on to the next myth.

Myth: You can just chuck plastic recycling straight in the recycling box.
No, first you need to wash away any food or liquid from plastic containers, as this can contaminate recycled products. Lids should be screwed back on and the bottles should be crushed to save space.

Myth: I can recycle all plastic pots.
Almost. Plastic pots for yoghurt, noodles or soup and tubs for margarine and ice-cream are accepted for recycling by many, but not all, local authorities. Plastic trays and punnets, clear plastic packaging and plant pots that are not black are often accepted.

Myth: I can chuck any plastic in the recycling box.
This is a common myth. Plastics that are not generally recyclable include pill trays with foil, such as those for headache pills, laminated pouches for pet food, paint pots, toys and expanded polystyrene used in packaging. Plastic film from pots or trays is not recyclable. Neither is cling film, crisp packets, and food and drink pouches, pre-prepared salad bags and any non-polyethylene film, such as PP, PVC and other forms. And black plastic is not generally accepted as its colouring means it cannot be picked out by sorting machines.

Myth: I should just dump carrier bags in the waste bin.
False. Most plastic bags can be recycled but must be dropped off at carrier bag collection points at supermarkets. Those that can be handed over include plastic carrier bags, dry cleaning bags, magazine and newspaper wrappers, bubble wrap and bags for loose fruit and vegetables. Plastic bags are recycled separately because they can get tangled in the recycling equipment used to sort materials, causing technical problems at recycling plants.

Myth: Recycled plastic just ends up in landfill.
Not at all. In fact, there are two ways to recycle plastics.

  • Chemical recycling strips plastics back to their constituent chemical ingredients, though the process is still in its infancy.
  • Mechanical recycling breaks plastics up and turns it into pellets from which recycled plastic is made. Most technology requires recycled plastic to be combined with virgin plastic to create new products. But some companies have found ways of producing 100% recycled plastic.

Myth: Recycled plastic is just as good as newly made plastic.
Unfortunately not. As plastic is recycled, its quality degrades and typically it can only be reused once or twice. For instance, polyethylene terephthalate bottles might come back to life as polyester clothing or carpets. This compares badly with glass, paper and metal that can be recycled indefinitely.

Myth: The plastics industry is doing nothing about straws, cotton buds or polystyrene packaging.
In fact, under a UK initiative called the Plastics Pact, most of the industry has committed to tackle unnecessary packaging. The pact has identified eight problem items that manufacturers have pledged to eliminate by 2020. These include plastic straws, cotton buds with plastic stems, polystyrene packaging, disposable plastic cutlery, plastic stirrers and disposable plastic plates and bowls. You won’t need to worry about how to recycle them.

Since Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II finale (2017) highlighted the threat to marine life from the mountains of plastic waste that litter the oceans, plastic pollution has become a top environmental concern. Much of this is not simply household plastic waste, but industrial plastic such as fishing nets and tyres that households cannot control.

But there is much you can do. Get your plastic recycling right and you can help save oceans and the planet from the avalanche of polymers. Bust those recycling myths and become an eco-warrior from the comfort of your own home.

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