Plastic Recycling in the UK

Plastic recycling is a major global concern for governments, public and private organisations, and environmentalists. This key concern is explained by the enormous discrepancy between the industrial scale plastics produced each year, the small percentage recycled, and the large amounts that end up in landfills, causing plastic pollution on the environment.

According to OECD, we are currently producing double the amount of plastic we did 20 years ago (around 460 million tonnes of plastic) globally. However, the figures representing our waste management efforts are not encouraging:

  • We recycle only 9% of plastic waste.
  • More than 50% of plastic waste ends up in landfills.
  • We collect only 15% of overall plastic waste, but 40% of that still ends up in landfills as residue waste.

The UK uses approximately 5 million tonnes of plastic annually. The country has also recorded a growth rate in waste management and plastic recycling in recent years. For example, plastic bottles recycling rate has grown to 380,000 tonnes annually, up from only 13,000 tonnes in 2000. Last year (2021) plastic recycling rate in the UK stood at 44.2%.

Plenty of plastic recycling details underline the UK’s growing efforts to reprocess plastics. We’ll focus on some of these issues in this article, including the types of plastic recycled in the UK, how plastic is recycled, the benefits of recycling plastic, and where you can recycle plastics near you.

What types of plastic can be recycled

When you bring your plastic waste to the kerbside or recycling centres, you only place a few types of plastic into the recycling bin. That could make you wonder why some plastics are recycled, and others are not.

Theoretically, all types of plastic are recyclable, but not all plastic is recycled. Here’s why:

  • All plastics have a resin quantity. Plastics with lesser amounts of resin are easier to recycle. As a general rule, the higher the resin quantity, the harder it is to recycle the plastic.
  • Some plastics have multiple layers and types of plastic, making them harder to separate and more costly to recycle.
  • Plastic containers are easily contaminated by their contents. This makes the resin in the plastic unfit for recycling.
  • Some plastics require special treatment when recycling, making them more of a cost than a benefit to recycle.

Based on these qualities, plastic producers indicate the recyclability of a type of plastic using numbers. These numbers are symbolic of the resin amount in the plastic, which is why they are referred to as “plastic resin codes.”

The resin codes (inside three looped arrows) go from 1 to 7 and can be used to classify plastics into three categories based on their recyclability:

  • Easily recycled plastics.
  • Difficult to recycle plastics.
  • Non-recyclable plastics.

Easily Recycled Plastics

There are three easily recyclable types of plastic:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
  • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)

PET – Plastic Resin Code 1

Polyethylene Terephthalate is the most recycled plastics, identified with the plastic resin code 1. This type of plastic is mostly used to make food packing, including water bottles, yogurt tubs, soft drinks bottles and water butts.

PET plastics are made of polymers that can undergo closed loop recycling, meaning that the plastic object can be recycled into the same or a closely similar product without losing quality or creating much waste. For example, water bottles are recycled into more plastic bottles.

PET plastics can also undergo open loop recycling, where the waste plastic objects are reprocessed into a different form. For example, water bottles are recycled to make a fleece jacket.

HDPE – Plastic Resin Code 2

High Density Polyethylene is made of easily recycled polymers or plastic particles and has a high strength to density ratio (it can withstand great stress).

Products made from HDPE include milk bottles, detergent and soap bottles, and motor oil containers.

HDPE can be recycled into similar products or down cycled into lower quality products, including lawn furniture, wheeled waste bins, non-food containers, and pipes.

PP – Plastic Resin Code 5

Although Polypropylene is one of the three plastic types considered easy to recycle, it is the most difficult and costly to recycle among the three. PP can also retain the odour of the product that was in it. These two reasons explain why it is not collected for recycling in some councils and why some recycling centres do not accept it.

Plastic products made from PP include take away food packages, ketchup bottles, drinking straws, packing tape, picnic products, and carrier bags. PP can be down cycled into auto parts, lawn furniture or park benches, and plastic speed bumps.

Difficult to Recycle Plastics

Difficult to recycle plastics are those that present the risk of tangling in the machine during the recycle process, making it more costly and complex. As such, these plastics are not collected for recycling in most councils.

Nonetheless, new chemical recycling technologies in the waste management industry are rendering plastics that are difficult to reprocess using mechanical recycling easier and cheaper recycle.

There are three types of plastics categorised as difficult to recycle:

  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
  • Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
  • Polystyrene (PS)

PVC – Plastic Resin Code 3

Polyvinyl Chloride is the second most-produced plastic after Polyethylene, accounting for 20% of all plastic manufactured globally.

The wide usage of PVC is because of its durable and versatile nature as it can be used to make a vast range of home, technical, and industrial products. PVC products include:

  • Packaging products such as salad bags, cling foil and blister packs.
  • Building materials like hoses, pipes, window fittings, and chemical building blocks.
  • Plastic furniture like lawn or park benches.
  • Electrical and electronic products.
  • Healthcare equipment.
  • Car parts.

PVC products cannot be recycled for household use and should not be reused for food packaging as PVC leaks toxins during its life cycle. When recycled, PVC plastic objects are generally turned into similar forms or down cycled to lower quality plastic products.

LDPE – Plastic Resin Code 4

LDPE is hard to recycle plastic because it easily tangles inside the recycling machine. This means a more complex recycling process that’s not financially viable.

For most of us, LDPE connotes the ill-famed plastic grocery bags previously used widely in grocery shops. But Low Density Polyethylene is also used to make food bags and magazine covers.

LDPE recycling is council-dependent, and most recycling services do not collect it for recycling at the kerbside. If recycled, Low Density Polyethylene is usually down cycled into bin liners, plastic films, floor tiles, and lawn furniture.

PS – Plastic Resin Code 6

Polystyrene is a highly attractive type of plastic due to its lightweight. However, this same quality of Polystyrene creates large amounts of plastic waste in landfills.

Because of its cushioning nature, Polystyrene is commonly used to make packaging boxes. Other products made from PS plastic include Styrofoam plates, cups, and cutlery, egg trays, food takeaway boxes, and insulation plastic material.

Polystyrene is difficult to recycle. But when recycled, it is usually down cycled and is not turned into household products.

Non-Recyclable Plastics

Plastics that are extremely difficult to recycle are categorised under “other” and marked with the plastic resin code 7. These plastics are usually never recycled but instead end up in the general household waste bin at the kerbside and in landfills.

Plastic types under resin code 7 include Bisphenol A (BPA) and Polycarbonate (PC). These plastics are considered toxic as they leak harmful chemicals. For example, BPA contains xenoestrogen, a chemical thought to disrupt endocrine production and functioning in humans.

BPA is often used to harden other plastics and as a lining in food cans to lengthen food shelf life. Polycarbonate is used to make plastic items like eye wear lenses, protective gear, lighting fixtures, digital storage disks, and automotive parts.

How to Recycle Plastic

Plastic can be recycling using the traditional recycling method known as mechanical recycling or using the chemical recycling method, also known as feedstock recycling. Mechanical recycling breaks down plastic without altering its chemical structure. Chemical recycling mixes different types of plastic and alters the chemical structure of plastics.

The plastic recycling process happens in 5 phases, as indicated in the figure: 

Stage 1:    Collection

The waste plastic you deposit for recycling at the kerbside and what is collected from businesses, institutions, and local recycling centre is taken to Material Recovery Facilities (MRF). The collection process bulks the plastic materials for sorting.

Stage 2:    Sorting

At the Plastic Recovery Facilities (PRF), collected plastic is sorted according to the resin codes. To sort and separate plastic materials, mechanised automated processes or manual processes are used.

Stage 3:    Washing

Dirt or non-plastic material can affect the quality of the plastic recycled. To prevent this, plastic for recycling is washed to remove residual contents, labels, and adhesives. Friction and rotatory washers are used in the cleaning process to rid the plastic of contaminants or remnant food waste and oils.

Note that rinsing recyclable plastic waste at home before depositing it at the collection site can significantly reduce the time and energy used to clean plastics at the recovery centres.

Stage 4:    Shredding

Shredding also called grinding, turns recycled plastics into tiny flakes depending on the required size. Different types of machines are used in the shredding process, including swivelling hammers, rotary cutters, shear shredders, and guillotines.

Stage 5:    Melting and Pressing

The shredded plastic flakes are melted and pressed through an extruder machine to form new pellets. This process can be done using mechanical recycling or chemical recycling.

Stage 6:    Plastic Manufacturing

The plastic pellets are sold to manufacturers in the plastics industry to create new plastic products. These new plastic products end up again in your home, organisation, or business, and the process is repeated from the collection stage.

Where to Recycle Plastic Near Me

The best way to find out where to recycle plastic near you is to use online recycling locator tools. For example, the British Plastics Federation has an online plastic recycling locator tool where you can find your nearest recycling location for specific plastic materials.

Plastic Bottles

To recycle plastic bottles, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the British Plastics Federation locator page.
  2. Chose “Where to recycle a specific item.”
  3. Select “Plastic bottles.”
  4. Tick the kind of plastic bottle you want to recycle from the listed options and click “Continue.”
  5. Enter your town or city code and click “Search.”

Plastic Bags

To recycle plastic bags, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the British Plastics Federation locator page.
  2. Chose “Where to recycle a specific item.”
  3. Select “Plastic bags and wrapping.”
  4. Tick the kind of plastic bags or wrapping you want to recycle from the listed options and click “Continue.”
  5. Enter your town or city code and click “Search.”

Plastic Packaging

To recycle plastic packaging, follow these steps:

  1. Go to the British Plastics Federation locator page.
  2. Chose “Where to recycle a specific item.”
  3. Select “Plastic packaging.”
  4. Tick the kind of plastic packaging you want to recycle from the listed options and click “Continue.”
  5. Enter your town or city code and click “Search.”

Note that there are other websites where you can find a recycling locator tool such as However, these may not be as specific for different plastic recycle items as the British Plastics Federation locator.

Why Recycling Plastic is Important?

As with any other recycled materials, recycling plastic has significant environmental and economic benefits.

Here are 5 of the key benefits of plastic recycling:

  1. Plastics recycling greatly reduces the carbon footprint on the environment.
  2. Recycling plastic is a sustainable way of obtaining raw materials for plastic production and preserving the earth’s natural oil stocks.
  3. Plastic recycling enhances waste management and minimises the amount of plastics waste sent to landfills and the amount of plastic waste toxins leaked into the environment.
  4. Plastic reprocessing reduces the amount of energy used in the manufacturing process as it consumes less power than energy intensive processing of virgin plastic polymers and raw materials.
  5. The recycling of plastics sustains the “reduce-reuse-recycle” behaviour among consumers.

Plastic Recycling Questions

People participate better if they have all the information needed about the plastic recycling system. In this light, for the UK plastics recycling roadmap by the British Plastics Federation identifies the provision of information on efficient recycling as one of the key ways of plastic post consumer waste management by 2030.

Which Type of Plastics Cannot be Recycled?

Ideally, all plastics can be recycled. The plastics that are not recycled have high resin levels, making them difficult to recycle. The recyclability of plastics also depends on the manufacturing process. Thermoset plastics are not recycled because their plastic particles create irreversible chemical bonds. Thermoplastics are easily melted and remoulded.

Specific examples of plastics that cannot be recycled include:

  • Composite plastics.
  • Bioplastics.
  • Polycarbonates.
  • Mixed plastics materials like laminated plastics.
  • Blister packaging and cling film.

Note though that new chemical or feedstock recycling methods are making recycling of some of these plastic types possible.

Also, some fairly recyclable plastics may not be recycled in your council because recycling rules vary from council to council. Check with your council to be sure what plastics are accepted for recycling in your area.

How Much Plastic is Recycled in the UK?

The amount of plastics recycled in the UK is approximately 43.8% out of the estimated two million metric tonnes of plastic manufactured each year. The remaining plastic waste is either shipped to other countries or ends up in landfills.

It is predicted that the plastics recycling rates would go up if manufacturers and packaging designers improved plastic labelling to make it easier for consumers to understand. The use of the new chemical recycling techniques is also expected to increase recycling rates and redirect plastic waste from landfill and incineration as well as capitalise on renewable energy.

Where Can I Recycle Plastic Plant Pots?

Not all recycling companies accept plastic plant pots. It is, therefore, important to find out if your council recycles plastic pots before depositing them into the kerbside recycling bins.

You can follow these steps to find a plastic plant pot recycling point near you:

  1. Go to the British Plastics Federation locator page.
  2. Chose “Where to recycle a specific item.”
  3. Select “Plastic packaging.”
  4. Tick “Plant pots” and click “Continue.”
  5. Enter your town or city code and click “Search.”

Note that black plastic plant pots are never recycled and should be deposited into the general waste bin.

Can plastic Type 4 be recycled?

Plastic type 4, commonly known as LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene), can be recycled but is very difficult to recycle. This is because it easily tangles inside the recycling machine, making recycling more costly and less efficient.

For this reason, most local authorities in the UK do not recycle plastic type 4. Where recycled, LDPE plastic products are down cycled into floor tiles, bin liners, and lawn furniture. plastic type 4 can also be bonded with other plastics and recycled using chemical recycling techniques.

How is Plastic Recycled?

Plastic is either recycled using mechanical or chemical recycling. The general plastic recycling procedure happens in six stages as follows:

  1. Collecting plastic from kerbsides and collection centres and bringing it to the recycling facilities.
  2. Sorting the material to separate it according to plastic type and colour and removing any non-plastic materials.
  3. Washing the waste plastic to remove any contaminating food, drink, or other materials.
  4. Shredding the plastic to prepare it for melting.
  5. Melting the plastic and passing it through an extruder machine to create plastic pellets.
  6. Manufacturing the plastic pellets into new plastic products.

What Items are Made from Recycled Plastic?

The items made from recycled material depend on the plastic recycled. Different plastic types are recycled into more plastic products, as shown below.

Plastic Type 1 – PET

Recycled into water bottles, soft drink bottles, food packaging, and water butts.

Plastic Type 2 – HDPE

Recycled into detergent bottles, milk containers, lawn furniture, wheeled plastic bins, pipes, and plant pots.

Plastic Type 3 – PVC

Recycled into cling foil & blister packs, salad bags, hoses and pipes, window fittings, park or lawn benches, electronic and electrical parts, hospital equipment, car parts, and watering cans.

Plastic Type 4 – LDPE

Recycled into waste bin liners, floor tiles, wheeled waste bins, and lawn benches.

Plastic Type 5 – PP

Recycled into take away food packages, picnic products, carrier bags, food bottles and tubs, drinking straws, plastic speed bumps, and lawn furniture.

Plastic Type 6 – PS

Recycled into packaging boxes, egg trays, plastic crates, plastic cutlery, cups, and plates, and insulation material.

Plastic Type 7 – Other Plastics

Generally, not recycled.

Always check with your local authorities to be sure you deposit recyclable plastic in the recycle bin and are clear or what can and cannot be recycled.

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