Have you ever checked the symbol on a plastic item and assumed that the circle of three recycling arrows with a number inside meant that it was recyclable? Until recently I thought the same. In fact, the symbols simply indicate what type of plastic the item is made from.
Only two types of plastic (1: PET and 2: HDPE) are widely recycled in the UK. Some other types of plastic can theoretically be recycled but it is rarely economic to do so due to the physical processes involved, or the low value of the resultant recycled material. And other types of plastic are just not recycled at all.
To complicate matters further, the availability of kerb-side collection for plastics varies according to your local council so you need to explicitly check with them before putting plastic items in the recycling.
Some areas do have specific recycling schemes for the more tricky plastics, but only if you are able to take your plastics to a collection point. For example, most supermarkets collect carrier bags and some other soft plastics for recycling, and over 2,200 local Co-op stores now collect a wide range of soft plastics.
(See our article Don't be Rubbish at Recycling for more information about the best ways to recycle plastics.)
Types of plastic
So what are the different types of plastic, and how easily can they be recycled?
Code: 1 - PET (or PETE)
Type of plastic: Polyethylene terephthalate
Common uses: Single use plastic bottles (eg soft drinks), jars, food and cosmetics containers
Recycling status: Widely recycled in the UK
Recycled into: Polar fleece, furniture, carpet, panelling, bottles and food containers
Code: 2 - HDPE
Type of plastic: High density polyethylene
Common uses: Some shopping bags, detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, milk and juice jugs, butter and yoghurt tubs
Recycling status: Widely recycled in the UK (except for flimsy plastics like bags)
Recycled into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, shampoo bottles, pens, floor tiles, drainage pipes, benches, picnic tables
Code: 3 - PVC
Type of plastic: Polyvinyl chloride
Common uses: Garden hoses, window frames, blister packs, piping, wire sheathing, plastic siding
Recycling status: Not commonly recycled
Could be recycled into: Cables, speed bumps, decking, mud flaps
Code: 4 - LDPE
Type of plastic: Low density polyethylene
Common uses: Heavy duty sacks, six pack rings, dry cleaning bags, cling film, frozen food bags, some shopping bags, squeezy bottles
Recycling status: Possible to recycle but not always economic
Recycled into: Compost bins, floor tiles, dustbin bags
Code: 5 - PP
Type of plastic: Polypropylene
Common uses: Containers for hot liquids, medicine bottles, cereal packet liners, packing tape, drinking straws, some yoghurt pots, bottle caps
Recycling status: Possible to recycle but rarely economic to do so
Can be recycled into: Bicycle racks, pallets, trays, battery cables
Code: 6 - PS
Type of plastic: Polystyrene
Common uses: Toys, DVD/CD cases, plastic cutlery, disposable plates and cups, foam packaging, egg boxes
Recycling status: Very rarely recycled
Could be recycled into: Insulation, foam packing
Code: 7 - Other
Type of plastic: Polycarbonate, polylactic acid (PLA) and others
Common uses: Roofing, 3D printing, baby bottles, water cooler bottles, car parts, nylon, sunglasses
Recycling status: Not recycled
What should we do about recycling plastic?
As the availability of plastic recycling schemes varies according to your local council, and as many types of plastics can’t be recycled at all, what should we do about the plastics all around us if we are trying to adopt a greener and more planet friendly lifestyle?
Until we can figure out how to break down plastics into biodegradable components, there is no perfect solution, but in the meantime the best approach is:
Avoid buying products made of plastic or in plastic packaging wherever possible.
If an item is absolutely necessary but is only available in plastic, try to find a version that is made from recycled plastic, or which is at least made from one of the widely recyclable types of plastic (ie code 1: PET, or code 2: HDPE)..
With regards to the plastic products that are already in your household, reuse them as many times as possible. When an item is no longer fit for its original use, see if you can find an alternative use for it. For example, an old washing up bowl could become a mini pond on your deck; a large plastic milk jug could become a cloche for young plants.
Only when a plastic item can no longer be used at all should you then discard it. Make sure that you check what type of plastic it is and place it in the appropriate recycling collection.