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Plastics demystified: is it actually recycled?

Recycling in the UK is very confusing, but one important thing to note is that all plastics are recyclable.  However, it is often not commercially viable to recycle certain types of plastic unless your business is creating a large volume of waste. For this reason, the ‘mixed recycling’, or ‘plastics’ waste streams offered by most waste brokers, as well as household recycling, actually includes less plastic than you might think. 

Plastic recycling in the UK is a complicated process. A recent study found that councils across the UK run 39 different collection schemes. Business waste brokers are no better; each one collects different types of plastic, and requires different waste streams.

Things are improving; some recycling facilities now offer mixed plastic recycling, taking any type of plastic, but this is still new technology, and few facilities can do it.

We should mention before going any further that all plastics are recyclable, but it is often not commercially viable to recycle certain types unless your business is creating a large volume of waste.  For this reason, the ‘mixed recycling’, or ‘mixed plastic recycling’ waste streams offered by most waste brokers, as well as household recycling, actually includes less plastic than you might think.

Here’s a helpful infographic to demystify a little of the confusion around different plastics. However, remember that this is only a guide – read on for more details about the ins and outs of plastic recycling in the UK.

Artboard 1

#1 – PET (polyethylene terephthalate)


What is PET used for?

Single-use drinks bottles, cooking oil bottles, food trays for ready meals and textile fibres (polyester).

Can PET be recycled?

PET bottles are widely recycled, but other forms of PET such as food trays and berry containers aren’t always included in mixed recycling streams due to sorting issues.

What can PET be recycled into?

Carpets, strapping, furniture and polyester fleece material.  Recycling technology is evolving constantly – new technology allows PET to be recycled into new food packaging.

#2 – HDPE (high density polyethylene)


What is HDPE used for?

Milk bottles, shampoo bottles, cleaning chemical bottles, some plastic bags and cereal box liners.

Can HDPE be recycled?

HDPE bottles are commonly recycled, but once again other forms of HDPE aren’t always included in mixed plastics streams, due to sorting issues.

What can HDPE be recycled into?

HDPE can be recycled into a wide range goods: garden furniture, litter bins, detergent and oil bottles, pens and flooring.

#3 – PVC (polyvinyl chloride)


What is PVC used for?

Window frames, drainage pipes, shower curtains, large drinks bottles, cooking oil and larger cleaning chemical containers, clear food packaging and electrical wire insulation.

Can PVC be recycled?

PVC is rarely recycled in the UK – it is hardly ever collected in mixed recycled streams. However some specialist recycling facilities such as plastic lumber makers will accept it.

What can PVC be recycled into?

Plastic lumber, decking and garden furniture, flooring and matting, cables and speed bumps.

#4 – LDPE (low density polyethylene)


What is LDPE used for?

Plastic shopping bags, squeezy bottles, bread and frozen food packaging; lining or laminating cardboard containers (e.g. juice bottles) and clothing.

Can LDPE be recycled?

LDPE is not usually accepted in standard recycling programmes. It is difficult to recycle due to the different grades available.  However some recycling centres have begun mixed plastics recycling, and these will accept LDPE.

What can LDPE be recycled into?

Bin liners, litter bins, plastic lumber and flooring.

#5 – PP (polypropylene)


What is PP used for?

Margarine tubs and yoghurt pots, drinks bottle tops, waterproof clothing, stronger shopping bags, sauce bottles and drinking straws.

Can PP be recycled?

PP is not usually recycled through standard mixed recycling streams.  However some newer mixed plastic recycling plants will accept it, or specialist facilities.

What can PP be recycled into?

Traffic lights, brushes, landscape borders, plastic pallets and trays, litter bins and car battery casings.

#6 – PS (polystyrene)


What is PS used for?

Takeaway boxes and cups, meat and vegetable trays, egg cartons and polystyrene packaging.

Can PS be recycled?

Polystyrene is very rarely recycled in the UK, except by recycling plants that have started mixed plastics recycling, or through specialist facilities.

What can PS be recycled into?

Foam packing materials, insulation, stationery products and egg cartons.

#7 – OTHER


What are OTHER plastics used for?

Large water carriers, sunglasses, computer casings, car parts, bullet-proof materials, nylon, signs and displays, some food packaging and baby’s bottles.

Can OTHER plastics be recycled?

Plastics that don’t fit into the previous categories are all bundled together into code 7, so there are no standardised recycling guidelines. Some of these are recyclable, some are even compostable, however others are not recyclable.

What can OTHER plastics be recycled into?

Those that can be recycled are recycled into a range of products, such plastic lumber, garden furniture. Compostable plastics will turn to compost.

In closing, remember that this blog post is a guide.  For what you can recycle in your company, you’ll need to find out from the waste broker you use.

Keen to learn more? 

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