St Nicks

Centre for nature and green living

Plastic Myths Busted!

Just a few Grade 1s and 2s. Read on to find out what this means...

After getting tonnes of questions, our Recycling Coordinator Sam Taylor wrote a blog in the hope of clearing up some of the confusion around plastics…

Aren’t all plastics recyclable? How do you make a plastic anyway? Why will you recycle a plastic bottle but not a yoghurt pot? Well, read on to find out the answers, I’m happy to discuss all of this in more depth so drop me a comment or email me at recycling@stnicks.org.uk

Sorry if we get a bit technical in parts, but we’ll try our best to keep this as jargon free as possible!

I can hear you shouting “Surely if it is made of plastic and you can recycle one type, you can recycle anything made from plastic?!”  Well in theory yes, in practice not so much. There are 7 grades of plastic and whether you can recycle each grade depends on your local council. It started when clever people in America came up with the Resin Identification Code system to help consumers easily identify the different types of plastic. From now on I’ll refer to them as ‘triangles’, because that’s basically what they are. These triangles contain numbers and this my friends is the key to knowing whether it can be recycled. Used in conjunction with information from your local council, which is always easily available online, this makes it easy to work out which plastics are recyclable and which are not. Read on to find out the differences between them….

1 The most commonly used plastics are those whose triangles contain a number 1 (aka ‘Grade 1’). That means it is made with polyethylene terephthalate, commonly known as PETE or PET. This type of plastic is often found in drinks bottles, medicine tubs or peanut butter jars. All type 1 PET bottles can be recycled according to the UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2014, and almost 60% of PET plastics are being collected for recycling from households. Now 60% may not seem like much but when you hear that just  3% was collected in 2001 you can see how much better we are all getting at recycling! When recycled, PET bottles can be remade back into bottles for soft drinks or transformed completely into carpets, totebags and fibrefill stuffing for coats.

Image courtesy of WRAP

An Eco Tote made from reycled plastic bottles. Image courtesy of Nellie&Darcey

Grade 2 plastics are made from high density polyethylene, also known as2 HDPE. Commonly, these are items such as milk bottles, fruit juice, shampoo and soap bottles and cleaning products. HDPE is 100% recyclable, yet only 79% of these bottles are recycled in the UK (why? You can do so much better!). On average each HDPE milk bottle will contain up to 15% recycled material, although African company Nampak managed to incorporate 30% recycled HDPE into its Infini milk bottle in 2013. Other uses for recycled HDPE include being formed into lumber like bars used in furniture, crates or fencing.

On a lighter note, most major soft drinks manufacturers have signed up to the Courtauld Commitment, promising to reduce the carbon impact of packaging, reduction of packaging as a whole and packaging weight. Research is ongoing but since it started there has already been a reduction of 15% in the weight of plastic bottles – great news!

3Grade 3 plastics are made from Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). PVC is made into items such as cling wraps, medicine blister packs, garden furniture and plastic pipes. PVC is very rarely recycled and can actually be dangerous if ingested (!), and when it is recycled it is used for industrial grade items such as flooring.

Grade 4 plastics are made from low density polyethylene (LDPE). It can4 be used to make cling wrap, sandwich bags, carrier bags and squeezable bottles. Grade 4 plastics can also be formed into lumber and then built into a variety of objects. Unfortunately grade 4s are rarely recycled although some supermarkets offer recycling facilities for carrier bags (for example here in York Sainsbury’s at Foss Island offer it).

Grade 5 plastics are made from Polypropylene (PP). Most common uses 5include takeaway containers, margarine or yoghurt pots, drinking straws, and medicine bottles. It can be recycled into weirdly-specific items such as ice scrapers, battery cables and rakes. In most areas grade 5 plastics are not currently recycled.

Grade 6 plastics are made from Polystyrene. This includes items such as packing peanuts, polystyrene or items branded Styrofoam™. Recycling 6grade 6 plastics is very costly because it uses a lot of energy, so it is rarely recycled. Where it can be recycled it is usually made into insulation. These plastics are lightweight, buoyant and not commonly recycled; sadly it is the primary component of debris in the oceans. There are more and more alternatives to Type 6 plastics such as biodegradable cutlery and coffee cups or using the types of containers shown below rather than polystyrene. Most of the products made by companies such as Vegware are compostable rather than recyclable but composting is still miles better than contaminating and destroying marine habitats or sitting in landfill forever!

A polystyrene cup, image courtesy of Wikipedia

A polystyrene cup, image courtesy of Wikipedia

 A number 7 on plastic items means that it’s a miscellaneous type of 7plastic that doesn’t fit with the other six codes. This can include polycarbonate and polylactide plastics. These types of plastic are very hard to recycle due to the wide range of chemicals used in their manufacture.

Stuart Frost Recycling in the rain, courtesy of Stuart Watling

Whether or not a type of plastic is recyclable is down to how it is made. Grades 1 and 2 are able to be moulded in a blow moulding process. The other types of plastic (3-7) are made with either an injection or stamp moulding process and involve the use of pesky additives. As they are made from a combination of chemicals it is costly to separate and break down the different components.

Another factor that affects the recyclability of plastics is the end market. There is a huge market for for Grades 1 and 2, and it’s stable and well-established. The markets for other grades of plastic are infrequent and inconsistent; this unfortunatley makes it easier and cheaper for manufacturers to begin with new plastic rather than collecting enough of the right colour, type, additives, ink etc to use recycled material.

When grades 3-7 are left in your kerbside container our St Nicks team will notice and leave it behind – we ask that you remove it before your next collection. If your local authority doesn’t collect these types of plastic it’s really important that you don’t put them into your box! Due to their collection methods the staff won’t know it contains items that can’t be recycled until it’s taken back to the processing facility. At this point it will have taken up unnecessary space on their vehicles and will cost extra money to be separated from the other plastics and disposed of. If the levels of contamination are too high the whole lot can end up in landfill anyway! Just because your box is empty after a collection, it doesn’t mean that it has been recycled. Simply check with your local authority if you aren’t sure!

Another thing to note is that manufacturers tend to operate on a national, or even international level. Packaging is standardised to cut costs (imagine having to repackage items based on each local councils’ recycling facilities!) so just because the packaging says an item is recyclable it doesn’t mean it is. Always check before you throw things in your bin or recycling container, you’ll soon get the knack and be able to identify which items belong where.

New recycling labelsThere is however big news in the world of recycling labels: the OPRL (On-Pack Recycling Label) scheme are simplifying information given on packaging so it will show one of three labels. Hopefully it will bring clarity to a confusing and sometimes unneccesarily complex system. Personally I’m unsure. I’ve seen the labels on a few items now and it’s great if the packaging only has one component. When you throw more into the mix – plastic films, inner trays, etc. – this system could fall apart. It could even result in more of the incorrect materials ending up in recycling boxes and being pulled out at reprocessing centres. I hope to be proved wrong!

Did you know that 4% of the world’s oil is used in the production of plastic? Or that 37% of plastic in the UK is only used to make packaging? Recycling plastics is great for the environment, but thinking more about the packaging you consume daily and reducing the amount of plastic you get through in the first place is the most important thing to remember.

So now you know and are all set to recycle the right items. Where possible, try to re-use, up-cycle and recycle as much as you can to send the bare minimum to landfill.

16 February 2017 | Categories: Recycling | Tags: council, environment, materials, packaging, plastic, recycling, resin identification code system, waste, wastebusters, York

7 Responses to “Plastic Myths Busted!”

  1. Sue Taylor says:

    Interesting article and, if it’s ok with you, I’d like to use the info in part of my recycling display at Transition Town Telford Grow Local Day later this year. Do York Sainsbury’s at Foss Island still offer recycling of Grade 4 LDPE. Sainsbury’s in Telford no longer offer this, instead you have to take it to Local Community Recycling Centres. Problem for non-vehicle users as you can only enter the LCRC in a vehicle and staff aren’t allowed to take items from an individual person. Do you have similar access issues in York?

    • Sam Taylor says:

      Hi Sue, that sounds great you are more than welcome to use the information as part of your display. Sainsburys at Foss island do indeed still have containers to recycle grade 4 plastics in their foyer. The LCRC in York is also vehicle access only, I haven’t tried to take anything in on foot but I do believe they have allowed us in the past to take items in on a bike trailer.

  2. Jim says:

    Hi Sam
    Can I ask why we have to separate our recycling at all when our collection team (YO23) lob plastics/metal and glass into the same vehicle?
    Many thanks for the informstive article btw and as others have said, a simple ‘recycle these triangle numbers/ not these ‘ would be v useful.
    All best
    Jim

    • Sam Taylor says:

      Hi Jim,

      Thank you for your comment, we have plans to include that information in our next batch of publicity (which will be April) so fingers crossed it helps some people!

      We don’t service YO23 but from communications with my counterparts at CYC I believe that often the rear of the vehicle is segregated, it’s just not always obvious unless you are staring straight into it. I know at some times due to vehicle malfunction they have had to use alternative vehicles which do only have one storage compartment so it is all mixed. It is then resorted at a depo, which the Council does try to avoid as it is much more expensive than transporting it in different containers. To the best of my knowledge the new vehicles rolling out in early April are going to solve this, the old vehicles were somewhat unreliable. I’d be happy to discuss this further if you’d like to send me an email to recycling@stnicks.org.uk.

      Hope that goes some way to answering your question.

      Thanks for reading!
      Sam

  3. Oli says:

    Hi Sam, This is a really useful article- it delivers the simple message of “don’t put any plastic with anything other than a 1 or 2 in a triangle in your kerbside box” which I was not aware of before (and consequently I’ve been guilty of putting grades 3-7 in my box as a result…)

    I think a simple infographic with the same message would be great through everyone’s letterbox- I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t know the rules!

    • Sam Taylor says:

      Thanks Oli! We are currently updating the information we provide our residents, I’m hoping to include some simple infographics as you suggest as I believe if people understand why we can’t collect certain items they may be more likely to only put the right items out. Thanks for your comment :) Sam

  4. Alison W says:

    Hi, I do believe this is a great web site. I stumbledupon it ;) I’m going to revisit once again since I book-marked it. Money and freedom is the greatest way to change, may you be rich and continue to guide others.

Leave a Reply