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Recycling Plastic Wrappings

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 21 Apr 2012 | comments*Discuss
Plastic Label Landfill Wrapping Recycle

One of the most ubiquitous of packaging forms in the UK today has to be plastic wrappings. Love it or hate it, plastic is cheap, convenient, lightweight, durable and flexible. In fact it’s grown in popularity so much that today we’re using 20 times more than we did in the 1960’s.

And yet?

Plastic is probably the most difficult and complex of materials to recycle and is the most evident of materials when it comes to what is littering our environment.

So how do we combine the usefulness and desirability of plastic packaging with making sure we protect our environment?

Plastic Waste

Each year in the UK we collectively produce three million tonnes of plastic waste, of which more than half is made up of packaging. Plastic wrappings actually make up about 11 percent of our household waste, 40% of which is plastic bottles - but still only a relatively small percentage is recycled.

Labelling For Plastics

One of the difficulties with recycling plastic wrappings is that there are many different forms of plastic. Not all can be recycled in the same way and therefore need to be treated very differently. This means that ideally, plastic wrappings should be pre-sorted at source into types. This can be difficult for consumers and expensive for recycling centres.

At the moment, there is no legislative requirement for UK manufacturers to label packaging with the type or grade of plastic used, which makes it more complicated for the consumer to sort their waste. However, the USA has introduced symbols that clearly class plastics by number and which have also been adopted here.

Different Types Of Plastic

Plastics are generally rated as degradable, biodegradable, or compostable which largely denotes the chemical make-up, density, and pliability of the material depending on its form and function. However, these terms are technical misnomers, as most plastics would take hundreds of years to break down if placed in landfill tips.

The six most common types are:

  • Polystyrene – ‘Styrofoam’ cups, meat trays, some egg boxes
  • Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) – tubing, plastic bags (‘poly bags’), dispensing bottles
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) - fuel tanks, toys, crates, cleaning fluid bottles
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – used for drinks bottles
  • Polypropylene – food ready meal trays, margarine tubs, nylon-type flooring
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – food packaging, flexible containers, films, and trays

Improvements In Recycling Plastic Wrappings

Although plastic is still difficult to recycle, and re-using it is a far more environmentally friendly option, a huge investment is currently being made by companies to reduce their plastic packaging waste, or to introduce new technology which is able to cope more easily with recycling.

One such initiative is the Reverse Vending Machine (RVM) which is already operational in other countries and may be introduced in Britain soon. The RVM is a fully automatic facility whereby plastic can be collected, sorted, graded, and recycled as a one-stop option.

What You Can Do To Recycle Your Plastic

  • Sort your plastic waste ready for kerbside collection or take it to your nearest recycling centre
  • Re-use plastic containers and bottles wherever possible
  • Cut down your consumption of bottled drinks or choose glass bottles when you buy it
  • Keep and re-use plastic bags and refuse when offered one in a shop
  • Where possible buy your fruit and vegetables loose rather than in plastic boxes

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