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14 Sep 2019

The plastic people still recycle incorrectly - and does it really matter?

Find out which plastic item most people are incorrectly putting into recycling and whether that's a problem. Plus, find out what common packaging symbols mean

We asked 1,987 people to tell us how they would dispose of certain household items, to see how much you really know about your recycling. We found that although 94% know what to do with a wine bottle, you're still stumped by plastic cutlery.

In fact, we found that the vast majority of people recycle glass correctly - either at kerbside recycling or at local bring banks. The latest Material Flow reports from WRAP (the UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme) suggest that in 2017, glass recycling rates were 4% higher than previously estimated. That's not surprising, given that in our survey we found that:

  • 94% of you would recycle a wine bottle (with a screw lid) at home or at a bring bank
  • 93% of you would recycle a jam jar at home or at a bring bank

We're pleased to see that people are correctly recycling glass items, but how did they get on with more confusing packaging and products? Read on to find out where confusion lies and how to read those perplexing packaging symbols.

We've investigated the amount of packaging used by supermarkets. Which uses the most easily recyclable packaging andwhat are supermarkets doing about plastic packaging?

Consumer confusion: plastic cutlery

While you're great at recycling glass and some plastic items, our survey found that the majority of people incorrectly put plastic cutlery in with their recycling.

Plastic cutlery is usually made of polystyrene, which is tricky to recycle and not all local councils accept polystyrene. But if yours does, it's likely to be the light, air-filled expanded type.

Even if it is theoretically recyclable in your local authority, it's also got the added complication of being too small for the recycling process. Small items are likely to fall out of the recycling load as it's sorted - a measure that's in place to remove small items of contamination.

Despite that, 60% of people said that they would put plastic cutlery into their mixed recycling in the hope that it would be processed anyway. But is this optimistic approach doing more harm than good? We spoke to the experts to find out.

How much of a problem is contaminated recycling?

When we asked Which? members to talk us through their recycling habits, many said they took an over-zealous approach, in the hope that the items they weren't sure about would be removed at the recycling plant if they weren't actually recyclable.

However, the local councils and waste management companies we spoke to said that plastic contamination is a real issue. It can lead to a lower-grade recycled plastic product at the end of the cycle.

In worst-case scenarios, contamination can mean that the entire load of recycling has to be put in to landfill or incinerated.

While contamination with non-recyclable plastics - especially films such as plastic carrier bags - can be a problem, contamination with dirty items is more of a concern. Products that definitely shouldn't be put in to your recycling bin include soiled nappies or containers with any food or liquids still inside.

Where are we getting it right?

Bags that are crinkly and airtight, such as salad bags or crisp packets, are made of composite plastics that are almost impossible to recycle. To stop gases escaping from them, these plastics have been developed with multiple polymers layered on top of each other. It makes them completely airtight - ideal for storing foods that would otherwise soon go stale or wilt.

But the layers make them very hard to break down. This plastic is usually labelled as 'other' and has to be put into general household waste.

We found that people had a good idea of what to do with this type of plastic packaging. Some 66% of you correctly said you would put a plastic shopping bag into general waste or take it to a bring bank at a supermarket, while 71% knew that salad bags have to be disposed of in general waste bins.

However, only 2% of people said they would take a salad bag to a bring bank at a supermarket. It's worth noting that some points can take this type of packaging, as well as soft plastic bags such as those used for bread or magazines - check at your local supermarket.

Plastic bottles are very widely recycled - the vast majority of councils will accept them at kerbside or at recycling bring banks. In fact, one of the councils we spoke to can only accept plastic bottles for recycling.

It's clear that most people have a good understanding of bottle recycling, as 94% said they would recycle them. Of those, 91% said that they would do this at kerbside.

What do plastic packaging labels mean?

Local councils and waste-management firms count on people sorting their recycling correctly at home. For some items this might be obvious, but for others, whether or not they're recycled correctly is likely to depend almost entirely on how well they're labelled.

Yet manufacturers are under no obligation to label packaging at all, never mind in a consistent manner - so it's no wonder there's confusion.

On-pack recycling symbols appear on all sorts of packaging. But when we surveyed people about their recycling habits, the following percentages said that they didn't know how they would dispose of packaging bearing these symbols:

  • 22% - check locally
  • 26% - Mobius Loop
  • 32% - Green Dot

Check locally

This label is applied to packaging that's collected by 20-75% of local authorities across the UK. While 42% of people said that they would check local recycling if they saw this symbol, 19% said they would just put it straight in with their mixed recycling. And 22% wouldn't know what to do.

Mobius Loop

Recycling symbol

This means an object can in theory be recycled, but don't assume that it's accepted in all recycling schemes.

Only 9% told us they would check their local recycling rules before sorting packaging with this symbol. Some 45% said they would put it straight into mixed recycling, while 26% wouldn't know what to do.

Green Dot

This symbol doesn't mean that the packaging is recyclable. In fact, it doesn't have any environmental or recycling meaning; it's a symbol used by companies to show they've complied with packaging waste legislation. The people we spoke to were confused about this, with 41% saying they would put packaging that displays this symbol straight into mixed recycling, while 32% told us that they didn't know.

For more on what packaging symbols mean, read our guide on how to recycle in the UK.