Most of us are trying our best to minimise the impact that plastic has on the environment, choosing biodegradable, compostable and recyclable options whenever we can.
However, we can’t recycle all types of plastic.
Certain types of plastic simply can’t be recycled. Often this is because the item is made from a combination of materials that can’t be separated, or the item is contaminated with whatever was stored inside.
Additionally, not all local councils allow us to recycle every type of plastic that can be recycled.
Some allow us to recycle margarine tubs, plastic bottle lids and yoghurt pots, while some don’t.
This usually depends on the recycling facilities available in the local area and the market demand for each type of plastic.
So can do you do with non-recyclable plastic? What’s best for the environment?
Let’s take a look.
What different types of plastic are there?
Plastic items usually carry a number which can tell you what type of plastic the item is made from and help you understand whether it can be recycled.
Plastic normally doesn’t contain a label saying ‘recyclable’ or ‘non-recyclable’, so you need to know what each number means.
Here’s a quick and easy explanation of what the different numbers mean and whether or not they can be recycled.
- Name: PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)
- Used for: Plastic bottles, jars, containers, clothing (polyester), shampoo bottles, soap, etc.
- Recyclable: Yes
- Name: HDPE (High-density polyethylene)
- Used for: Jugs, picnic tables, waste bins, park benches,
- Recyclable: Yes
- Name: PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)
- Used for: Plastic food wrapping, teething rings, pet’s toys, children’s toys, blister packs, garden hoses, cables.
- Recyclable: No
- Name: LDPE (Low-density polyethylene)
- Used for: Cling film, shrink wrap, squeezy bottles, plastic bread bags, plastic bags, some clothing, floor tiles.
- Recyclable: Sometimes. Check with your local council.
- Name: PP (Polypropylene)
- Used for: Cereal box liners, plastic bottle tops, margarine tubs, yoghurt pots, crisp packets, Sellotape, rope, nappies.
- Recyclable: Sometimes. Check with your local council.
- Name: PS (polystyrene)
- Used for: yoghurt pots, Styrofoam drinking cups, cutlery, packaging, insulation, underlay for laminate flooring.
- Recyclable: Sometimes. Check with your local council. Some businesses will collect used foam packaging chips to be reused.
- Name: Other; several types of plastic including PC (polycarbonate).
- Used for: Baby bottles, sippy cups, children’s plates and cutlery, car parts.
- Recyclable: No. Check individual labels for details.
Why can’t we recycle certain types of plastic?
As you can see from the list above, there are certain types of plastic that can be recycled across the UK, a handful that depend on your local council, and others which can never be recycled.
If you’re unsure about the rules in your area, visit your local council’s website to find out more.
As we mentioned early, another problem when it comes to plastic recycling (and recycling as a whole) is contamination.
Many people don’t realise that even if a plastic item can be recycled, they still need to wash it out before popping it into the recycling bin.
Otherwise it’s likely to end up in landfill or get burned anyway.
There’s also that tricky problem of mixed materials.
Mixed materials are those items which contain a combination of materials, for example different types of plastic or different materials such as plastic and paper.
Many throw a used envelope or jiffy bag into the paper recycling without thinking to remove the plastic address window or bubble wrap first.
Other items which fit into this category include:
- Post-it notes
- Tissue boxes
- Gift wrap (non-paper)
- Coffee cups
- Food pouches (such as baby food pouches, sports gel pouches and pet food)
- Photo paper
- Crisp packets
What Normally Happens to Non-Recyclable Plastic?
So, what happens with all this non-recyclable plastic and the stuff that is pulled out of the recycling bins because they can’t be recycled?
The news isn’t good, I’m afraid.
If you’re not recycling that plastic, there are three things that are likely to happen to it:
It’s most likely that your non-recyclable plastic will end up in landfill once discarded.
Once there, it won’t decompose like natural substances and can sit there for hundreds or even thousands of years before it breaks down.
While it breaks down, many of the potentially toxic chemicals used in the manufacture of these products can leech into the ground and can kill plants, harm wildlife and pollute water.
The worst of these chemicals include flame retardants, colouring, BPA, BFA and phthalates.
Although you might associate big piles of burning plastic with third-world countries who lack the infrastructure to recycling efficiently, a similar scenario happens over here in the UK.
Incineration might seem to be a better option than landfill, since it can be used to generate electricity.
But it’s not quite that simple.
When plastic burns, it releases a significant quantity of potentially harmful gases into the environment which can harm health and contribute to the greenhouse effect.
3. The oceans
Some of it is dumped directly (if you’re feeling brave, read this article to find out where some of it comes from) but a huge amount of it is either blown in or washed in from litter on land.
Those forgotten crisp packets, carrier bags and Mars bar wrappers you see blowing down the High Street? Guess where they’re going to end up.
Once there, they either get broken into tinier pieces called microplastics or simply float in the tides, often getting mistaken for food by marine life by animals such as sea birds, whales and turtles. This plastic usually ends up killing the animal over time.
If this plastic is eaten by a fish or seafood that humans like to eat, it can end up in our stomach too. This can be as high as 67% of seafood and 25% of fish.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, none of these options are good for the planet or the humans and animals who live upon here.
The solution is clear. We avoid buying the non-recyclable types of plastic as much as possible, or we find a better solution that disposes of our plastic without any harmful effects.
What to do with non-recyclable plastic
Sadly, there are limited options about what you can do with that non-recyclable plastic.
The best thing is not to bring it into your home in the first place, though it’s hard to avoid non-recyclable plastic when shopping.
Having said that, there are two exciting schemes which look set to grow over the next few years.
The first is an initiative offered by Marks & Spencer which promises to recycle plastics that can’t go into the local council recycling bins and turn it into useful items such as store fittings, furniture and playground equipment for schools.
As the moment, this is limited to a certain number of stores but it’s a great step in the right direction.
The second is an exciting project called EcoBricks. It’s a novice scheme which hopes to turn empty water bottles into building material that can be used for indoor furniture, garden furniture and other similar structures.
Simply fill an empty water bottle with clean, dry, unrecyclable plastic and then take it to one of the EcoBricks UK collection points across the UK.
Although still in its early stages, this environmentally friendly initiative has about 20,000 fans on their Facebook page which is extremely encouraging.
Although we’ve been focusing on recycling plastic here, it’s important to remember that the best thing we can do with our non-recyclable plastic is to not use it in the first place (see our guide to using less plastic here).
Not only does plastic waste impact the environment, it also demands a huge amount of energy to be created in the first place.
So, whilst schemes like EcoBricks are very exciting, we should always aim to reduce our use of plastic first and find ways to reuse before we consider recycling, since recycling is an inefficient process that can’t be considered the solution to the plastics crisis.
Charlotte Witts is a writer and entrepreneur who wants to show you how easy it is to live a more conscious, zero-waste lifestyle. A confirmed yoga-addict, trail runner and ocean-lover, she currently lives in the Azores where she enjoys the simple pleasures in life.