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Why can't we recycle plastics other than bottle-shaped plastics?

Polymer types

Plastic bottles are made from the following plastic polymers:

PET (polyethylene terephalate); number 1, such as fizzy drink and squash bottles

HDPE (high density polyethylene); number 2, such as milk bottles, household bleach

PVC (polyvinylchloride); number 3, such as for some imported mineral water

PP (polypropylene); number 5, such as washing up liquid bottles e.g. Persil

Compared to other plastics, bottles are a more mature type of packaging with common industry standards. This means bottles manufactured almost anywhere in the world can be sold and recycled in the UK. They are always made from the same material, regardless of the brand, and are produced to a tightly defined material product specification. By recycling only plastic bottles you can guarantee that the melt flow index (MFI) will not vary so whatever you are recycling the bottle into will be of perfect quality.

Problems with other types of plastics

Trays, tubs and other plastic packaging are usually made of other polymer types and will have a different MFI so the material will not be consistent. Examples include:

Sorting plastics

In the UK it is not economically viable to sort post-consumer plastics by hand. In theory, all plastics can be recycled, as long as they are properly segregated and washed. However, there are so many different polymers and blends of polymers that to separate them all would be a practical nightmare and an economic impossibility. Bottles make up the largest type. They are easily identifiable, with readily available equipment to sort them.

Hampshire's recycling is sorted at one of two Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs), which use both mechanical and manual sorting. Our MRFs use an infra-red "optical sort" to separate plastic bottles. The wide range of polymers which make up pots, tubs and trays (PTT) cannot be successfully sorted in our MRFs without investing significantly in new equipment, which at this stage would be prohibitively expensive.

Why do some Local Authorities collect other plastics for recycling?


Although some authorities do collect these types of plastic they are predominately exported for processing. This practice is subject to review by the Environment Agency due to contamination issues and will probably decline.

What can be done about the problem of non-bottle plastics?

Project Integra, which represents all Hampshire's local authorities on general waste issues, is attending a number of meetings with representatives from the Packaging Industry and WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) on this issue. It is complex and a number of options are being discussed, including:

What is the packaging industry doing about this?

This is an issue for the plastic packaging chain (from manufacturer to the seller of the goods) to sort out with plastic reprocessors to make these plastics more recyclable.


Can the government do anything about this?


The UK Government has introduced producer responsibility regulations under the European packaging directive. Unfortunately it is an industry led scheme here and although it has increased the levels of packaging recycled at minimal costs it has not stimulated either UK processing capacity or influenced product design. In Germany under producer responsibility (EU law) where the plastic packaging industry (manufacturer to the seller of the goods) subsidises recycling of plastic packaging, levels of subsidy are much higher than in the UK.


More information

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