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How to recycle in the UK

By Vicki Crowe

Recycling in the UK can be confusing. Our guide to plastic explains what can and can’t be recycled, and how.

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There are seven main types of plastic that you use around your home.

These are broken down into the following categories. The numbers, in three looped arrows, are called their 'plastic resin codes'. These are often stamped on plastic packaging and can be used to quickly identify what type of plastic you're dealing with: 
 

 

The most common - and the most valuable - of these are:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) - used in water bottles and plastic trays
  • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) - used for milk cartons and shampoo bottles
  • Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) - plastic carrier bags and bin liners.
  • Polypropylene (PP) - margarine tubs and ready-meal trays

These plastics have the greatest recycling demand and are easier for recycling facilities to handle than other polymers. As it’s airtight and rigid, yet flexible, PET is the most commonly used, and particularly useful for packaging food and drinks.

While polystyrene (used for takeaway boxes, cups and food packaging) and PVC (used for food packaging and drainpipes and guttering), are technically recyclable, it's much more difficult to recycle these than the four listed above.

Bags that are crinkly and airtight, such as salad bags or crisp packets, are made of composite plastics that are almost impossible to recycle. To stop gases escaping from them, these plastics have been developed with multiple polymers layered on top of each other. It makes them completely airtight – ideal for storing foods that would otherwise soon go stale or wilt. But the layers make them very hard to recycle. This plastic is usually labelled as ‘other’, and has to be put into general household waste.

Tips for better recycling

When we spoke to plastic experts, they explained that while manufacturers need to do their bit to improve their plastic waste output, there is plenty that consumers can be doing to help make sure that the UK's recycling system is more efficient. Here are our tips for better recycling: 

  • Screw lids back on The general rule is to screw plastic lids back on to their bottles and push straws back into cartons before recycling. On their own they are too small to make it through most recycling sorting machines (most will reject anything narrower than 40mm). However the advice can vary depending on what your local authority collects. Wrap and Recycle Now communicate this nationally and it's the way they have outlined how collections should be managed according to their recycling guidelines. This is all part of trying to make collections consistent across the UK.
  • Squash bottles Squash plastic bottles before you put them out for recycling. Not only does this save space (reducing their carbon footprint), but it also stops them rolling off the sorting machine conveyor belts
  • Recycle at the supermarket Take recyclable plastic film and leftover carrier bags back to recycling points at big supermarkets – our investigation showed that this could increase the amount of supermarket packaging you recycle by up to 10%
  • Empty and rinse If there’s residual food waste left in your recycling, empty it and give it a quick rinse. They don’t need to be sparkling, but a half-full yoghurt pot or baked bean tin, for example, risk contaminating porous materials such as paper and card in the same recycling load and rendering it all unrecyclable

Packaging symbols

It can be tricky to know what to do with the plastic you have in front of you, and we've found that even with the best intentions, it's not always clear what to do with your plastic waste.

To find out more about what can be recycled in your local authority, visit Wrap's Recycle Now website.

See our list of the most common labels below: 

Reduce your plastic use

While it's important to recycle the plastics that we do use, it's better to reduce the amount we buy altogether. Here are our tips for reducing your plastic usage: 

  • Buy a reusable water bottle rather than single-use ones
  • Avoid takeaway coffee cups - most coffee shops will fill up a reusable cup for you instead
  • Avoid wrapping leftovers in clingfilm - beeswax wraps or tupperware boxes are better alternatives
  • If you can, suppert local zero-waste supermarkets or shops that let you refill your own containers with dry groceries such as pasta and rice
  • When you have the choice, opt for loose produce at the supermarket
  • Think twice about buying food in black plastic containers. While technically recyclable, pure carbon-black plastic is not picked up by the infrared sorting machines at UK recycling facilities and is rejected. Mixed coloured packaging or off-black colours are OK. But trials are in place to try to fix this issue.
  • Recycle properly - when you do need to use plastic, recycle it properly so that it can be reused
  • Don't use plastic cups, cutlery, takeaway trays, plates etc.
  • Look for a local milk delivery service that reuses glass bottles rather than plastic ones
  • Always bring your reusable bags to the shops
  • Asking retailers that deliver large products in plastic (e.g. fridges delivered in styrofoam) to take the packaging away with them
  • Replace toiletries in plastic bottles (eg. soap and shampoo) with solid bars
  • Avoid wet wipes of any kind
  • Refuse plastic straws at restaurants and bars – or opt for one made of paper or metal
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