Plastic recycling: Your questions answered

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Supermarket chain Iceland has joined the battle against plastic waste, saying it will eliminate or drastically reduce plastic packaging of all its own-label products by the end of 2023.

It comes after recent outcries over packaging following Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet programme, which showed vivid images of plastic pollution.

But as plastic continues to dominate our shopping aisles for now, we asked you to send in any questions you had about plastic recycling.

Why are some plastics able to be recycled while others are not? – Joseph

There are more than 50 different types of plastics, making it more difficult to sort and reprocess than other materials.

Nearly all types of plastics can be recycled, but the extent to which they are depends on factors such as whether the technology is available in the area you live.

Many recycling collections in the UK have focused on key packaging types, for example plastic bottles, which are heavier than most other plastics and therefore relatively easy to sort.

Often packaging can consist of more than one polymer type, which makes it more difficult to recycle.

Problematic plastics include black plastic food trays, which are used by many supermarkets.

They are generally not collected as sorting machines are not able to detect them – the carbon black makes them invisible.

If they are collected, they are likely to be rejected at the sorting plant although companies are looking at new technology to get around this problem.

Some companies now use yoghurt pots made out of polyethylene terephthalate – the same material that is used for plastic bottles, making them easily recyclable.

But other yoghurt pots are made from polystyrene, which is not usually accepted in recycling schemes.

Margarine tubs are often made from a wide range of polymers, which require technology not readily available in the UK – meaning it is often shipped abroad for recycling.

Some district and borough councils collect plastic bags and film with their recycling, but they are not easy to sort mechanically meaning they are very costly to process.

Why can plastic trays be recycled in, say, Sheffield or Isle of Wight, but not in my home city of Manchester? – Paul Mostyn

Many local authorities now allow residents to put plastic trays in their kerbside collection but recycling is managed locally, rather than by central government.

What each council decides to recycle depends on the resources available.

In Greater Manchester, the only plastic recycled is plastic bottles because they don’t have the technology available to sort between different types.

A bottle and a food tray, for example, can’t be recycled together as they melt at different temperatures.

Recycle for Greater Manchester, part of England’s largest Waste Disposal Authority, says it focuses on plastic bottles as they are in demand by manufacturers that make new products, whereas there is low demand for plastics like yoghurt pots, margarine tubs and plastic trays.

However, other areas, such as Surrey, are happy to take those items for recycling.

According to the UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2017, by Recoup – a UK organisation which recycles plastics, 76% of (298) local authorities in the UK collect plastic pots, tubs and trays.

Only five local authorities out of 391 do not offer a collection service for plastic bottles, while 19% (75) collect plastic film and 9% (34) collect non-packaging plastics.

To find out what you can recycle where you live, click here.

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Can ALL of the plastic milk bottle be recycled – including the (harder) plastic screw cap? – L. Hudson

Plastic bottles are the most commonly collected packaging type because they are easy to sort and can easily be recycled in the UK, where a far higher amount is used than in most countries because it is used as a milk container.

Until recently, people were advised to remove lids from their plastic bottles because they were a different colour and could contaminate the bottle stream.

However, many processors are now able to separate the lids from the bottles themselves.

Check your local area.

What about empty toothpaste tubes? Millions of those will be thrown away every year, but am I correct in thinking they cannot be recycled? – Peter Hickman

Yes, squeezable toothpaste tubes are difficult to recycle and it is unusual for councils to collect them as part of their collections schemes.

This also applies to other squeezable tubes that contain products, like moisturising creams.

However, the pump action toothpaste tubes are made from a different type of plastic and are easier to recycle.

When recycled plastic has to be melted down and reformed to make it into new, doesn’t this produce gases? – Ben

Even when plastics can be recycled, some worry that doing so is even worse for the environment.

According to Professor Thomas Kinnaman of Bucknell University in the US, recycling plastic uses roughly double the energy, labour and machinery necessary to put it in landfill.

It could also become less efficient in the future, as modern incinerators produce less and less pollution.

And recycling has its own environmental costs, including more trucks on the road.

Recycling paper and glass, however, requires much less energy.

And governments are still encouraging recycling to reduce our need to extract ever more raw material from the environment.

Moreover, leaving plastics in landfills can allow greenhouses gases to be released as they begin to break down.

What can households do to reduce plastic waste? – Karen Lee

The environmental pressure group Greenpeace sets out seven ways for people to reduce the amount of plastic they throw away.

Their tips include: avoid packaged vegetables, carry a reusable cup and getting your milk delivered in glass bottles rather than buying plastics ones.

Other tips include using tupperware boxes instead of clingfilm to keep food fresh and avoiding coffee capsules which cannot be recycled.

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