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Plastics: Recycling and Marking Codes

Plastic Collection and Recycling pose problems but solutions are being found

Most plastics are not biodegradable, contain harmful chemicals and, when disposed of, can damage the environment. If certain plastic items are discarded willy-nilly, they can cause great distress to animals. Two examples are fishing line, often left near rivers, and rings of plastic from beer cans; both can result in great suffering, sometimes with fatal results. Please dispose of such items safely.
Organisations (such as offices, public establishments and factories) and those who have responsibility within the organisation for disposal of waste can call on professionals who will help.
As far as professional recycling is concerned, plastics are clearly big business. We have seen publicity which indicates that recycling is alive and well but the elaborate pamphlets, declaring the successful statistics, seem to emanate from the industry itself and the publicity is obviously well financed.
Instead of being dumped, waste plastic should be processed, for example into granules. These would be re-used to make new plastic in a never-ending cycle. Professional processing services include taking care to grade the waste and eliminate impurities such as dust and metal and granulating the plastic to European Standards.

Our primary focus is on domestic facilities. There are numerous household recycling schemes in the UK and many councils are effective. A quick tour on the net reveals that most authorities offer kerbside schemes for various recyclable waste (including plastics) and are prepared to separate the paper, metal, plastic etc. One obvious alternative is to reuse bottles, containers and bags and by their very nature this is a very practical option. 'Re-use' is very efficient and it saves you money.
In theory, much of the plastic produced as waste could be recycled but there are practical problems because there are so many different forms and types (hundreds), and most are lightweight. This means that collecting and transporting can be expensive. At some stage the types must be sorted and often the items must be cleaned before processing.

To make some sense of the different types consider the common categorisations : Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), Expanded Polystyrene (EPS), Acrylonitrite Butadiene Styrene (ABS), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Polyester (PET). Recyclable plastics are ABS, Styrene, Acrylic, UPVC, PVC, PP, PE, etc.
In order to assist the consumer separate plastic items, the American Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) produced a marking code to enable individuals to sort the six main types of plastic. The British Plastics Federation (BPF) and The Association of Plastics manufacturers in Europe (APME) recommend the use of this system. The coding is identified by an acronym and a number.
If you've not noticed these before you may see the following codes on some of your domestic containers. Often they are on the base (make sure the lid is secure before looking!).

The codings and labels are listed below together with some examples:
Family fun on a Plastic Tractor
Family fun on a Plastic Tractor

Click to enlarge
  • The PET or PETE code 
    PET or PETE: this is ubiquitous and is capable of producing transparent containers eg bottles for pressurised and soft drinks, mouthwash, household cleansers, liquid soap. When recycled may be used for carpet fibres, clothing and mouldings etc.
  • The PE-HD or HDPE code  
    PE-HD or HDPE (high density PE): some of these products are substantial and capable of being reused for years (providing the original contents are not toxic) milk and fruit juice bottles and jugs, bleach, detergent, fabric-softener, deodorant roll-ons and washing-up liquid containers. When recycled they can still be used for some of the above and also for bins and traffic cones etc.
  • The PVC or V code 
    PVC or V: can be used for transparent containers, non fizzy drinks (squashes), cooking oil, surgical spirit, meths and cosmetics bottles and some plumbing pipes. When recycled appear as floor mats, hoses and mud-flaps etc. PVC can be particularly dangerous when incinerated [see our synopsis of WEEE in the Electrical/Electronic section].
  • The PE-LD or LDPE code 
    PE-LD or LDPE (low density PE): food wrapping, and containers and lids for food. When recycled can be seen as carrier bags and bin-liners, even garden furniture.
  • The PP code 
    PP: food wrapping, yoghurt, and spread containers, medicine bottles and hand cream dispensers. When recycled may be used for brushes, video cassettes, plastic wheels, ice scrapers etc.
  • The PS code 
    PS: compact-disc jewel cases, hot-drink cups, cassette cases, disposable cutlery. When recycled may be used similarly but also rubbish cans, insulation, letter openers etc.
  • The code for other plastics  
    Other or O: all other resins such as ABS and polycarbonate. Used for durable goods such as waste pipes, kitchen gadgets, car trims, computer cases, laminates. Not much recycling done with these but there are exceptions eg to make brushes, scrapers etc.
Despite being common, Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) does not seem to have its own coding for the consumer. We take the liberty of squeezing it in here. If you get EPS packaging or seed trays, try breaking them up and using the lumps in pots for drainage. Or break into even smaller pieces and mix with garden compost to use in pots, window boxes and hanging baskets. The EPS helps drainage, aeration and insulation and you use less compost. Also, most garden centres now have recycling facilities for seed trays (and pots).
EPS can be commercially recycled back into making: EPS packaging; it can be converted to PS in the form of pellets from which plastic products like plant pots, coat hangers, picture frames, CD cases can be manufactured; hardwood replacement (by extruding the PS) for garden furniture, window frames etc; insulation board.
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In summary: recycling of plastics has its difficulties partly because most materials are not dense enough to make collection and transport very economical. We guess that this property also makes them particularly demanding on landfill sites. Sorting and cleaning add to the handling problems.
Plastics are so ubiquitous in our society and there is no doubt that they are very useful so recycling od them is extremely desirable. It seems that some councils have better records than others for recycling household plastics but this situation has improved considerably in the last few years. It may be that the costs of collection, transport, sorting and cleaning could be offset by the savings on landfill, or other means, for disposal. Additionally, of course, the environment would benefit and that has got to be worth some expense.
The UK government espouses kerbside recycling and it appears that the actual implementation, although still disparate across different communities, has improved in recent years. The other good news is that recycling facilities and technologies have improved noticeably and are still improving.



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Originated: February 2001,  Last Amended : 7 May, 2013