We are all encouraged to do our bit and recycle. Around the world, we use a colossal amount of plastic each day. With pictures across the Internet and many a news article showing plastic-covered beaches many now realise that when disposed of incorrectly plastic waste poses a real risk to the environment and wildlife. Incorrectly disposed of plastic can collect in the Ocean where it can cause harm to marine life as they either ingest or become entangled in our waste2. As awareness of this problem grows it can be helpful to understand the many different types of plastic waste.
We find plastic almost everywhere. It’s in wrappers, containers and bottles, cars, shoes and even baby wipes and tea bags. Of course, not forgetting plastic bags. It is safe to say that we can find plastic waste hard to avoid.
One single piece of plastic in the environment can take hundreds of years to break down4. And even then it breaks down into small plastic particles called microplastics which are almost impossible to recover. Whereas plastic is not going to go away quickly if we better understand how to deal with it we can all play a more informed role. By understanding the different types of plastic waste, we can better understand where to act to reduce plastic’s impact on the environment.
Many plastic applications are incredibly useful, which in turn has led to plastic’s popularity and ubiquity. Plastic material is cheap to produce, versatile, and durable. Made correctly we can use plastics safely to package food and across various healthcare applications8.
However, plastic does present some health concerns. Some types of plastic and plastic waste contain BPA, which is an endocrine disruptor. BPA has now been linked to a number of health issues including cancer and fertility problems1.
And plastic harms our environment in a number of ways. The process of mining the raw oil-based materials we use to create plastic disrupts natural habitats and can cause chemicals to leach into the environment during extraction.
Once extracted the plastic production process emits harmful CO2 adding to the climate change problem.
We now produce around 348 million tonnes of plastic every year14. Therefore, capturing plastic waste and waste plastic products and turning them into another useful product can help to limit the harm resulting from our demand for new or virgin plastic. Or from discarded plastic making its way into the environment.
Plastic recycling reduces C02 emitted from the manufacture of new plastic, emissions from incinerating plastic waste, and prevents waste from going to landfill. It also reduces the speed at which we use the earth’s oil stocks. Further, recycling plastic is more energy-efficient than producing new polymers.
Research has shown that increasing recycling is the best scenario for dealing with plastic waste6. Under the proviso, we need to deal with it in the first place. This remains the case despite the fact that plastic waste sent to recycling can get shipped elsewhere or end up incinerated.
The good news is that more of us are doing our bit when it comes to recycling. When we consider the UK alone, just 13,000 tonnes of plastic bottles were recycled in 2000. However, we are now recycling upwards of 350,000 tonnes each year. Overall across Europe, we now recycle 80% more of our plastic than we did 10 years ago15.
Further, we also need to take into consideration that plastic recycling in itself consumes energy. There’s little doubt overall that the best thing we can do is reduce our need for plastics at all and look to sustainable cleaner alternatives.
Thankfully a growing number of choices now present alternatives. Many of us now take our own bags to the supermarket, carry reusable bottles, and even avoid plastic-containing tea bags with reusable alternatives while looking to minimize the goods we purchase packaged in plastic. These choices all add up.
If you’re thinking about plastic-free choices take a look at our ideas for plastic-free gifts. You don’t have to be shopping for someone else you can gift some of these to yourself too.
The many different types of plastic waste are partly where the problem lies. We have the ability to recycle some plastics but not others. If you dig a bit deeper the large variety of plastic types presents often confusing information when we come to work out what we can recycle and what we can’t.
This is especially the case when we come to throw away mixed plastics. That is plastic items made from different types. For example, bottles made from one type of plastic and lids from another. With different labels, mixes, and criteria for plastic recycling understanding which is which can be challenging.
So what can we actually recycle? In one way, we can recycle almost every plastic but it is not as straightforward as this. There are economic and logistical factors that determine the extent to which we recycle plastics.
The most commonly recycled plastics are those that are used in milk bottles and soft drink bottles, PET and HDPE.
These are usually sent off for mechanical recycling, which is the most common means of recycling plastic waste. This is pretty much a matter of chopping it up small for reuse. One of the biggest constraints here is that mechanically recycled plastic material rarely has the same quality of new plastic. Or certainly at the point to be cost-effective. And hence it is often either mixed with new plastic or used for applications requiring a lower grade5.
However, we now have chemical recycling that makes it possible to recycle mixed plastics12. This is still a relatively new technology but it is constantly improving. The advantage here is the chemical recycling prevents the need for plastic waste to be sorted, making it a lot easier to process mixed plastics, which is what a lot of recycling centres actually receive.
Recycling does vary from one city or location to another. Different plants, technologies and policies further can present more complex requirements to understand when sending our plastic off to be recycled.
As such, there is no absolute rule of what can and can’t be recycled. Certainly, do check with your local council or governing body to find out, most will present information clearly on their websites or be able to advise you of any local criteria. Once you understand what is able to be recycled near you you can use this information to help increase the likelihood that your plastic is actually recycled.
When it comes to recycling plastic, there are two terms that we hear - Recovery Rate and Recycling Rate.
The recovery rate relates to the amount of plastic that has been collected. Once collected, it is sorted and then decontaminated if it is being taken to a recycling factory.
The amount of recycling we send to a facility either in the UK or overseas is known as the recycling rate. Should it be impossible to recycle plastic waste economically, it will be sent to landfill and in some cases, it will be sent to an ‘energy from waste’ facility7.
It’s also worth noting that we only process a third of our plastic waste in the UK13. And Across Europe, 41.6% of plastic collected through official schemes is sent to “energy recovery” Energy recovery processes essentially burn plastic to turn it into heat and energy. Whereas great progress has been made to improve this process to reduce harmful emissions, at the end of the day this is still a polluting outcome.
Much of the plastic incinerated or sent to landfill is as a result of it being unable to be recycled. This can simply be because we haven’t washed it or separated recyclable plastic from those that are not. Most large scale facilities don’t actually do this for us because it is too labour intensive, and therefore costly. This further aids the case for the concerned amongst us to take the time to understand the different types of plastic waste.
Almost all plastic will come with a symbol that represents three arrows chasing each other. Within this symbol is a number and the number relates to the type of plastic that the product is made of. This can range from one to seven:
If we are to reduce plastic waste, then it helps to gain an understanding of the different types of plastic. The aim of the numbers is to help consumers identify what can and cannot be recycled. This can then help us to make better choices.
Drinks bottles and perishable food packaging contain this form of plastic. It is thought to be a plastic that is safe although the odour from any foods or liquids put in them can be absorbed by it. Most facilities will recycle PET bottles and other plastics.
However, largely down to the huge volume we consume, The US only recycles around 25% of PET bottles.
The recycling of PET plastic involves shredding it and then repurposing into other products such as bottles, carpet or furniture. It can also be used to create fleece garments.
To reduce the amount of PET that you use, you could choose to switch to reusable bottles and containers.
This is another form of plastic that we can class as being safe. We can find HDPE in shower gel bottles and cleaning product bottles.
Children's toys also contain this type of plastic. HDPE does not lose its shape or degrade in sunlight, therefore we can also find it used for outdoor furniture and bins. Once it becomes a recycled material, we can turn it into furniture, pens, and bottles. HDPE is also relatively easily recycled and most facilities will accept it.
Only around 35% of HDPE is recycled.
This is a form of plastic that we can use for piping, windows, and different types of medical equipment. You'll typically find it in applications that require the plastic to flex, also including plastic wrap and cables. This type of plastic, known as the poison plastic, should not be used for food or drink as it does contain harmful chemicals. There is a link between these chemicals to liver disease and developmental problems in children. Special programs will recycle this plastic and turn into flooring or guttering. However, only around 1% of PVC plastic is recycled.
This safe and clean plastic is common in a number of items around the home. This can include plastic shopping bags and squeezable bottles. Fortunately, there has been an increase in recycling programs that will accept this form of plastic. After recycling, we can reuse it in items such as bubble wrap and even furniture.
To reduce your LDPE, you could choose to use reusable shopping bags. Replacing single-use plastic bags is a key behavioural change and has been shown to overall increase awareness around plastic waste3. It’s, for this reason, that the government in the UK and other countries now require a charge for plastic bags or are looking to phase them out entirely.
Known for its durable properties, this is a plastic that is safe for use in items such as plastic Tupperware containers and even medicine bottles. Due to its sturdiness and hard-wearing properties, once we recycle it, plastic producers can use it to make pallets, battery cables and even rakes. Again, many recycling programs are happy to recycle this form of plastic waste.
Polystyrene is a plastic that most are familiar with. We use it for protection around items that have been packaged, it is also used as insulation and in cups. It is known for leaching and is not a material that we can recycle easily. Although it is possible to recycle, not many programs do.
As this is a weak plastic, it breaks up very easily. It is also extremely light. Therefore, once broken up, it spreads through the environment easily. We can find polystyrene on many beaches while a lot of it finds its way into the oceans. To add to this, marine species are also ingesting it, leading to health problems and death.
There is a collection of plastics that fall into their own category. These are items that are difficult to recycle. This can include sunglasses, baby bottles, and even CD’s. They contain BPA, which is a toxic chemical and can cause disruption to hormones as well as a range of health problems16.
With so many different types of plastic waste, it can all seem a bit hard to wrap your head around. Despite this, there is one thing that we need to think about - how much plastic we use. Whether we opt for plastic that we can recycle or plastic that we cannot recycle, the amount we use has to be reduced. Despite this, recycling technologies are evolving and that does help the situation in a way.
Of course, using a plastic that can be recycled is a wise move. However, there are many reasons why we should consider using reusable items in place of plastics. Whether that is reusable cutlery in the office or reusable plastic bags, if we reduce the amount we use we can help the environment in many ways.
We are making progress when it comes to plastic recycling. Today many goods made from recycled plastic are as good as those made completely new9. However, ultimately it’s our consumption that adds to the piles of waste we produce. Making better choices when it comes to plastic is vital and something we can all play a role in.
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