Recycling is engrained in our culture, but we’re not always getting it right. How can we recycle better and what does responsible plastic recycling mean beyond what we place in our bins at home?
The United Kingdom is a nation of recyclers. We give our waste a second life because it’s the right thing to do and we want to do our bit for the environment.
According to study by Wrap, 4 in 5 UK adults regularly recycle their waste at home – but recycling can still remain somewhat elusive – especially when it comes to plastic.
What are some common misunderstandings about plastic and recycling, and how can we recycle better?
1) Plastic is one of the most environmentally friendly materials out there
78% of UK adults think that non-plastic packaging such as cardboard, glass and cans are better for the environment than plastic packaging. But this isn’t exactly the case. Although plastic has been villainised, when disposed of properly, plastic is one of the most environmentally friendly materials we can use.
According to a Life Cycle Inventory of your everyday disposable soft drink containers made from glass, plastic and aluminium, it was found that the environmental footprint of the plastic bottle was the lowest.
It takes more than twice as much energy to make a glass bottle compared to a plastic bottle – it creates 13 times as much solid waste and releases 4 times as many greenhouse gasses. The aluminium can did not perform much better.
Supporting proper plastic recycling and giving this material a second life has more overall environmental benefits than switching and recycling other packaging materials.
2) Check the On-Pack-Recycling-Label to tell you whether packaging is recyclable
According to YouGov, 60% of UK adults have difficulty understanding how to recycle plastic – and that is understandable considering there are so many different types of plastic out there.
If in the UK, one of the best ways to check whether packaging is recyclable or not, is to look out for the On-Pack-Recycling Label (OPRL).
3) The Green Dot does not tell you whether packaging is recyclable.
Similar to the resin code, The Green Dot, is sometimes misunderstood for a recycling symbol.
This symbol only indicates whether the organization or brand has made a financial contribution to the recovery, sorting and recycling in accordance with the principles defined by the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive 94/62.
4) The triangular resin code can, but does not always, tell you whether packaging is recyclable.
The triangular codes which are placed at the bottom of back of a plastic product, labelled 1-7 indicate the type of polymer of plastic material has been used to make the packaging.
Only if you know what types of plastic polymers are accepted in your local recycling streams can you use these symbols to help determine whether packaging is recyclable. Without knowing this, they are not always the most reliable indication.
They can sometimes indicate whether a product has been made from recycled plastic. The ‘r’ in rPET stands for ‘recycled’.
For more information about these codes, and how they can be used, check out this explainer from Maxpack.
5) When in doubt, leave it out.
When products or packaging are placed in the recycling bin when they are either too dirty or not recyclable, waste streams can become ‘contaminated’.
According to WRAPs Annual Tracker Survey in 2020, 4 in 5 UK households placed one or two items in the recycling bin that were not accepted locally.
Contamination can pose a financial burden on UK councils, due to costs associated with additional sorting, damage to recycling equipment and quality reduction of other recyclables, according to WRAP.
Contrary to popular belief, contamination is not necessarily born out of a lack of knowledge. The study ‘Inside the Head of the Contaminator’ by Keep Britain Tidy found that when in doubt, people sometimes placed the wrong packaging in their recycling bin because they felt guilty about their waste, and hoped that the item may eventually be recycled.
When you do recycle, it is important to check the label, clean the packaging and when in doubt – leave it out.
6) Responsible recycling means choosing products made from recycled materials.
For most of us, our everyday association with recycling is about disposing used items appropriately.
However, the very definition of recycling implies converting waste into reusable materials.
This means that recycling is also about the systems and infrastructure which make this all possible and supporting companies and brands who use our unwanted waste.
Responsible recycling thus consists of two basic actions: recycling what you can – and choosing products which have been made from recycled materials.
Although recycling is engrained in our culture, we still have a long way to go to get plastic recycling right. While looking out for the right labels and avoiding the pitfalls of contamination are key, responsible recycling goes beyond the act of disposing – it also means choosing products made from recycled plastic.