Plastic recycling

Plastic recycling is the process of recovering scrap or waste plastics and reprocessing the material into useful products, sometimes completely different from their original state. For instance, this could mean melting down polyester soft drink bottles then making model army figures and ammunition.

Plastic identification codes(PIC):

There are 7 groups of plastic polymers, each with specific properties, being used worldwide for packaging applications (see table below). Each group of plastic polymer is identified by its Plastic Identification code (PIC) - normally a number betwen 1 and 7. For example: Low-Density Polyethylene is identified as the number 4 and/or the letters LDPE. The symbol is used to helping identifying whether the plastic can be recycled into new products or not.

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Polyethylene terephthalate - Fizzy drink bottles and oven-ready meal trays.

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High-density polyethylene - Bottles for milk and washing-up liquids.

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Polyvinyl chloride - Food trays, cling film, bottles for squash, mineral water and shampoo.


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Low density polyethylene - Carrier bags and bin liners.

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Polypropylene - Margarine tubs, microwaveable meal trays.

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Polystyrene - Yoghurt pots, foam meat or fish trays, hamburger boxes and egg cartons, vending cups, plastic cutlery, protective packaging for electronic goods and toys.

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Any other plastics that do not fall into any of the above categories. - An example is melamine, which is often used in plastic plates and cups.

Why recycle plastics?

Plastics makes up around 7% of the average household rubbish.

The quantity of plastic waste produced every year in the UK is estimated to be nearly 3 million tonnes. Approximately 56% of all plastics waste is used packaging, three-quarters of which is from households. It is estimated that only 7% of total plastic waste arisings are currently being recycled.

Plastics production involves other resources as well such as land and water and produces waste and emissions. Depending on the type of plastic and the production method employed the overall environmental impact varies .

A report on the production of carrier bags made from recycled plastic instead of virgin polythene show that the use of recycled resulted in the following environmental benefits:

  • energy consumption reduced by three quarters
  • produces only a third of the sulphur dioxide and half of the nitrous oxide
  • reduces the water usage by almost 90%
  • reduces as well the amount of carbon dioxide generation by 2.5 times

Another study concluded that 1.8 tonnes of oil are saved for every tonne of recycled polythene produced.

Recycling in the UK

In 1998, a pilot feedstock recycling plant went operational at BP's Grangemouth site in Scotland, with a capacity to process 400 tonnes of mixed plastic waste year. A feasibility study into its viability concluded that a 25,000 tonnes per annum plant could be supported from the area's municipal waste sources alone.

Plastic process scrap recycling

Most of the plastic recycling in the UK is of 'process scrap' from industry, i.e. polymers left over from the production of plastics. This is relatively simple and economical to recycle, as there is a regular and reliable source and the material is relatively uncontaminated. Process scrap represents some 250,000 tonnes of the plastic waste arisings in the UK and approximately 95% of this is recycled. This is usually described as reprocessing rather than recycling.

Degradable and bio-plastics

Degradable carrier bags are produced with plastic which degrades under certain conditions or after a predetermined length of time. Degradable plastic are available in two types: bio-degradable plastics, which contain a small percentage of non oil-based material, such as corn starch; and photodegradable plastics, which will break down when exposed to sunlight.

Degradable plastic

Degradable Plastic means a plastic film containing a controlled percentage of an appropriate non-toxic, non-tinting additive, which will enable the plastic film to totally degrade when exposed to aerobic or anaerobic conditions, including when disposed in a landfill or other regulated dumping area, and within such period of time as specified.

Biodegradable plastic

Biodegradable plastics are plastics that will decompose in the natural environment. Biodegradation can be achieved by enabling microorganisms in the environment to metabolise the molecular structure of plastic films to produce an inert humus-like material that is less harmful to the environment.

Every year, an estimated 17.5 billion plastic bags are given away by supermarkets. This is equivalent to over 290 bags for every person in the UK.

Use of recycled plastic

There is a wide range of products made from recycled plastic which includes polyethylene bin liners and carrier bags; PVC sewer pipes, flooring and window frames; building insulation board; video and compact disc cassette cases; fencing and garden furniture; water butts, garden sheds and composters; seed trays; anoraks and fleeces; fibre filling for sleeping bags and duvets; and a variety of office accessories.


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