Which plastics can and can’t be recycled?


We all know that plastic is bad for the environment if it ends up discarded or in landfill, but it can be really hard to know which plastics can and which plastics can’t be recycled. Not all packaging labels make this clear, either, which adds to the confusion.

Plastics that can be recycled

There are a number of plastics that can be recycled; some we see in our everyday lives and others not so much (especially now that more manufacturers are using green alternatives to previous plastic solutions).

Plastics that can be recycled include:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – including water bottles and plastic trays.
  • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – such as bottles ranging from soft drinks, milk and toiletries.
  • Polypropylene (PP) – you see this used for everyday food packaging such as butter tubs and ready meal trays (black ones cannot be recycled, clear ones can)
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – commonly used on household piping, windows and door frames.
  • Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – such as food bags and cling film.
  • Polystyrene (PS) – including plastic cutlery and packaging materials.

Please bear in mind that not all of these plastics are accepted at domestic recycling plants; some, including PVC, LDPE and PS, have to be sent to specialist recycling plants that can deal with them. if they go to a domestic recycling plant, they may very well end up in landfill despite best intentions otherwise.

Plastics that cannot be recycled

Plastics that cannot be recycled even at a specialist recycling plant include:

  • Styrofoam – it does not break down enough to make something else from it. You see this usually as part of food wrapping such as the traditional “fish n chips” or in packaging items for transit.
  • Items made from two or more separate plastics – for example, takeaway coffee cups or toothpaste tubes. Whilst they are technically made from recyclable materials, they cannot be recycled together. They need separating before they can go to a recycling plant (and you could probably count on the fingers of one hand the amount of people who do this, if it is even possible to do by hand).
  • Dirty plastics – it’s important to clean your plastic before you put it out for recycling. There’s no money in council’s having to clean it at their end, so any dirty plastic will usually be sent to landfill even if its recyclable.
  • Plastic sleeves on bottles – The sleeves commonly found on drinks bottles can’t be recycled, even though the bottle itself typically can. These confuse the machines at recycling plants and have to be removed by hand, which means that they can end up in landfill in their entirety, rather than just the wrapper itself.

The “Scrunch” Test

Ever heard of the Scrunch Test? It’s quite simple – if something goes back into shape once it’s been “scrunched” up, then generally it can be recycled through normal domestic collections. If it’s something like a crisp packet, then it typically can’t – not unless it has been cleaned and then separated first, which leads to using a specialist recycling service.

When it comes to crisp packets, Walkers in particular are tackling this recycling problem with their Terracycle scheme: https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/brigades/crisppacket

Did you know….

  • Pringles tubes are known as the villains of the recycling world, as they contain FIVE different materials, not all of which are recyclable! Whilst Kelloggs, like Walkers, have set up a specialist recycling scheme for these nefarious tubes, they are also looking at different and more sustainable packaging for these crisps to reduce the problem.

          Pringles recycling scheme: https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/brigades/pringles#how-it-works

  • McDonalds have changed from plastic single use straws to paper versions in all of their restaurants, but these cannot be recycled either (say it with us….*head desk*!). they are biodegradable which is better, but inherently their thickness makes them hard to process at a recycling plant. In addition, most customers still dispose of them alongside the rest of their meal packaging, and this doesn’t work logistically for collections.
  • Not one council in the UK collects crisps packets, despite us eating over 5 billion packets a year as a nation!
  • Expanded polystyrene CAN be recycled BUT it’s so light that it requires specialist machinery to process it. Most domestic plants don’t have this, so only 1% of the UK can actually put things like takeaway boxes into their recycling bins with the knowledge it will actually be recycled (and that’s only if they clean it first!)
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