Your essential recycling guide Recycling plastics
This article, Your essential recycling guide, was last updated on 31 March 2009 and is now out of date and held in our online archive for reference. Explore our latest Home & garden articles.
According to Waste Online, the world's annual consumption of plastic materials has increased from around five million tonnes in the 1950s to nearly 100 million tonnes today.
There are about 50 different types of plastics, with hundreds of different varieties. All types of plastic are recyclable but some councils collect just a few of the most common.
It’s important to recycle plastics – or at least reduce your consumption – as most types take hundreds of years to break down naturally if they're sent to landfill sites.
Check which types of plastic your council collects for recycling and make a list including those which are used in products you often buy.
Plastic bottle recycling
Local authorities are increasingly accepting plastic bottles via recycling banks or kerbside collection schemes.
- If your home recycling bin doesn't take plastic bottles, you may be able to deposit them at your local recycling bank. Find out where your nearest is on the Recycle Now website.
- Clean and squash bottles before recycling them. There's no need to peel off labels, but lids should be removed to make it easier for bottles to be baled after collection.
- Some plastic bottle lids can be recycled if they're made from a type of plastic collected by your council. If in doubt, leave it out from your recycling collection.
- If you have difficulty recycling bottles, try to avoid buying them where possible. Purchase glass containers if you have the choice, and refill small bottles instead of buying water while you're out and about.
- Small plastic bottles can be reused in the garden, eg to grow seedlings. You can also use the top part of a drinks bottle as a cloche for small plants.
Recycling plastic packaging
There are few facilities in the UK for recycling plastic packaging like margarine tubs and plastic food trays.
This is partly because two of the most common materials in food packaging are also two of the most difficult and uneconomical materials to recycle – plastic and cardboard. Councils instead prefer to collect a small number of the most valuable types of plastic, such as the thicker types used in bottles.
But there are still many ways you can reduce the impact of plastic packaging:
- Buy products with little or less plastic packaging where possible, eg loose fruit and vegetables. For more waste reduction tips, check out our excess food packaging guide.
- Check with your council if there are any facilities elsewhere in your area for recycling plastic food packaging.
- Buy products made from recycled plastic where possible. This helps complete the recycling loop and raise demand for recycled plastics.
- Separate and recycle any paper or foil elements of the packaging if your kerbside collection scheme accepts these materials.
Recycling plastic carrier bags
Few local authority kerbside collections accept plastic carrier bags for recycling, and most local recycling centres won't take them either.
Although bags today use 70% less plastic than they did in the early 1990s, most are still made from non-degradable plastic which takes hundreds of years to break down.
Biodegradable bags are a better option but these can emit harmful greenhouse gas as they degrade, or can fail to degrade at all if buried in landfill.
Tips for recycling and reusing plastic bags
- Some supermarkets, including Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Somerfield now offer in-store recycling banks for carrier bags, or the option to hand bags back to the driver if your shopping is delivered to your home.
- Keep plastic bags for use next time you go shopping.
- Use a canvas bag for shopping or buy a supermarket ‘bag for life’. These durable bags cost around 10p and are designed for long-term reuse. Most supermarkets will replace worn out bags for life for free.
- Use old plastic bags as a rain cover for your bike or as bin bags around the house for non-recyclable rubbish.