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How much do you really know about recycling plastic?

Combat the confusion around common plastic packaging symbols, and find out what can and can't be recycled

Ever since BBC’s Blue Planet II showed us harrowing images of the damage that plastic pollution causes across our oceans, our dependency on plastic has never been far from the spotlight.  

The UK government has since made a number of commitments to fighting the rising tide of plastic waste. Recently, Prime Minister Theresa May announced an environment Bill to set out a legal framework for the government’s promise to improve protection for the environment. Many big retailers have pledged to cut back on single-use plastics, or signed up to The UK Plastics Pact.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that the UK currently uses around 5m tonnes of plastic every year. In fact, according to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), each household produces an average annual 55kg of the stuff.

Most of us diligently fill up our recycling bins with plastic each week, but it can be hard to know whether we’re recycling the right things.

When we surveyed 2,155 members of the general public in May 2018, we found that confusion around recycling labeling is rife. Keep reading to find out what packaging symbols actually mean, what plastic can (and can’t) be recycled and to see what happened when we put our own staff’s recycling knowledge to the test.

Related: What are supermarkets doing about plastic?


Packaging symbols explained

Some 48% of people in our survey thought the Green Dot symbol (two green arrows joined in a circle – see graphic below) commonly found on packaging means that the item can be recycled. In actual fact, it means that the company has paid into a scheme that supports recycling and use of sustainable materials, not that the product itself is recyclable, or made of recycled material.

Green dot and mobius loop

Luckily, 73% of you knew that the Mobius Loop (three arrows looped into a triangle – see graphic above) means something can be recycled. You’ll still need to make sure that your local council will accept it, though, as every area has slightly different rules. Visit WRAP’s Recycle Now website to check your local schemes.

At Which?, we’re calling on government and manufacturers to simplify and clarify packaging labels, to ensure that consumers know what can and can’t be recycled, and make recycling information labelling compulsory on all plastic packaging.

Recycling different types of plastic

Think you know your PET from your PVC? While there are lots of types of plastic, there are four main types used in the UK’s packaging:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Airtight and rigid yet flexible, PET is the most commonly used for packaging food and drinks;
  • High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Milk cartons and shampoo bottles;
  • Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) Plastic carrier bags;
  • Polypropylene (PP) Margarine tubs and ready-meal trays.

PET, HDPE and LDPE have the greatest recycling demand and are easier for recycling facilities to handle than other polymers. Other less valuable plastics, including polystyrene, PVC and anything involving a mixture of different plastics, are harder to process and less recyclable in the UK.

Some common types of packaging, including salad bags or crisp packets, are almost impossible to recycle. To stop gases escaping from food bags, plastics have been developed in which multiple polymers are layered on top of each other.

The layers make them completely airtight – ideal for storing food that would otherwise soon go stale or wilt – but they also make them very hard to recycle. This plastic is usually labelled as ‘other’ and has to go into your household waste. 

For more information on the types of plastic we use, how they are labelled to help you figure out whether an item is destined for the recycling plant or a landfill site and to read our tips for better recycling, go to how to recycle in the UK

How much do we know about recycling?

When our survey revealed how much confusion there is around plastic recycling, we thought we’d put our own staff members to the test.

Watch the video below to find out how good we were at identifying what can and can’t be recycled, and what do with a range of common household items:

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