So I started to write an educational resources for Girlguiding about plastic. It was at this point I realised I knew pretty well nothing – How could I teach and preach about using less plastic if I wasn’t doing it myself?  Thus begins the steepest learning curve of my life (bar becoming a mother – that is not a curve, it is just a vertical line)

What did I need to know? I had a lot of questions floating around my head about plastic and recycling it –  what can be recycled, why can some things not be recycled, where does our recycling go.

So I started to learn about plastic itself –  the kinds of plastic, their properties, uses, recyclability and life span – here are a few things I found out.

There are 7 main types of plastic which are handily given numbers 1 – 7.  Looking closely at most plastic products you should be able to find the number housed in a little triangle of arrows.  So let us take a look as the lucky seven:

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    Polyethylene terephthalate

    Catchy name right? PETE is the golden boy of the plastic world, he is the most used thermoplastic polymer and what makes him so useful is that he does not react with food or water, and is virtually shatterproof – Yay PETE! You might have seen him as clear plastic bottles, food Trays and polyester fibres. PET or PETE is also very easy to recycle.   If your local authority doesn’t recycle PETE go and kick them up the butt.

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    High-density Polyethylene

    You probably have a pint or two of HDPE in your fridge – the most common use is the white plastic milk bottle.   HDPE is also easy to recycle but sadly unlike PETE it looses a little of its usefulness and has to be downgraded –  Your milk bottles are likely to re-incarnated as bins or plastic pipes.

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    Polyvinyl Chloride

    PVC is not easily recycled and so is on its way out in the packaging industry.  It is most commonly used for making plastic pipes and really sweaty clothing.  If you manage to find somewhere to recycle it, you might crawl past it again on the motorway as it has dressed itself up as a traffic cone.

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    Low-density Polyethylene

    The humble plastic bag.  LDPE plastic is rarely able to be recycled at the curbside, however most supermarkets offer a plastic bag recycling point.  A lot of people do not know that you can recycle any LDPE plastic at these collections which include bread bags, bubble wrap and frozen veg packets.  LDPE generally  downgrades when it is recycled so it usually becomes black sacks, compost bins and outdoor furniture.

  • Polypropylene


    In the plastic industry ‘fatigue’ is a big problem; if you have ever bent a piece of plastic and seen a white mark- that is fatigue, which makes the plastic less useful because eventually it will break.  Polypropylene has a special superpower – it doesn’t get tired. This is also why it is one of the most difficult plastic for us to give up – it is used everywhere!  From you car to your carpet PP its the best at hanging in there.  Most yoghurt pots, margarine tubs and squeezy ketchup bottles are made from PP however the downside is that PP is not widely recycled.

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    Most commonly found in foam form (say that quickly) Polystyrene or Styrofoam is used in the food industry as take-away food and drinks containers. However it is also used in a lot of other applications including car interiors and seats, televisions computers and insulation.  The big issue is that PS is not commonly recycled and you would be hard pressed to find curbside recycling that includes it.

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    Imaginatively named – ‘OTHER’ is literally anything that does not fall in to one of the six categories above; this includes mixed and low grade plastics.  The most common plastic to fall into this category is Polycarbonate or PC; a plastic which in recent years has seen a rapid decline in use due to the health-related problem associated with Bisphenol A (BPA).  Its common uses are baby bottles, glasses and CD’s there is almost no recycling of category 7 plastic.

So that is a short intro to our common plastics. What struck me when looking for this information was that plastic and plastic recycling in particular is a total minefield.  Not all plastics are labelled, not all labelled plastics are recycled.  And whats more is there is a VAST difference between the recycling provided across the counties of the UK.

There is no regulations or standardization of recycling in the UK.  As far as I can find out there are no Government owned recycling facilities.  It seems having good recycling nearby is purely luck.  What also shocked me most was that the UK has very limited capacity for recycling its own plastic and nearly 3 million tones of plastic has been shipped to shipped to China.  The wake up call came when China shut its doors to this practice, mainly because UK recycling is so badly contaminated that the Chinese cannot recycling it – leaving them tonnes of our plastic waiting for landfill.

In short, the UK needs to get a grip and start taking more responsibility for our waste.

We all know recycling is great and we should certainly do more, but when it comes to solving a global plastic crisis it might not be the answer to our prayers.

From the list above we can see that some plastics are more easily recycled than others.  So should we just stick to using those plastics? The answer is yes and no –  something that really surprised me is how much plastic degrades as it is recycled; on rare occasions PETE might be recycled 10 times but it is only a matter of years before all plastic eventually ends up destined for landfill.

This is where the facts and figures get a bit scary – plastic does not degrade for between 500 – 1000 years. In fact we don’t actually know how long it will take, because it hasn’t happened yet.  What we do know about (thanks David) is the environmental issues relating to what happens while we are waiting for it to ‘just disappear’, that is the next step in the journey.

P.S if you are unsure about the recycling in your area I would really recommend searching the Recycle Now website:

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