Plastic recycling symbols – What do they mean?

Plastic Recycling Symbols

Currently, about 5 million tonnes of plastic are used in the UK each year. Although awareness of the problem of plastic waste has reached a much higher profile in recent years, mainly due to the BBC TV series, Blue Planet, many people are still unsure about plastic waste recycling and which materials can be recycled.

The UK government has recently announced an environment Bill that will document the legal framework that supports its commitment to combating plastic waste and protecting the environment. The UK Plastics Pact has attracted support from many major retailers, and others have made pledges about reducing their use of single-use plastics. Individual households in the UK produce about 55Kg of plastic waste each year, according to WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), but a recent survey by Which found that, although the public is keen to recycle, there is a great deal of confusion about the practicalities and what the different packaging symbols mean.

The Möbius Loop which is represented by three green arrows in a triangular formation means that the item is suitable for plastic waste recycling. In the survey, 73% of respondents knew this, although even if an item is recyclable, not all local authorities will have suitable facilities, so still may not accept it. A green square with a white circular arrow indicates that the item is widely recycled by 75% or more of local authorities. The same arrow on a black square background means that the plastic packaging is not collected by all local authorities, so you should check local rules, and the same symbol with a line through it indicates that the packaging is recycled by less than 20% of local authorities.

The Green Dot symbol that is often found on packaging simply indicates that the company that produced the item has joined a scheme supporting recycling and the use of sustainable materials. It does not mean that the item is suitable for recycling, although 48% of people in Which’s survey thought that it did.

There are four main types of plastic that are commonly used in packaging in the UK. These are Polyethylene Terephthalate, High-Density Polyethylene, Low-Density Polyethylene and Polypropylene.

Polyethylene Terephthalate, usually known as PET, is commonly used for food and drink packaging. It is rigid but flexible, and is also airtight. High-Density Polyethene or HDPE is used for packaging such as shampoo bottles and milk cartons, and plastic carrier bags are often made from Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). Containers such as ready meal trays and margarine tubs are often manufactured from Polypropylene (PP). Of these, HDPE, LDPE and PET are the easiest to recycle. Some other plastics such as PVC and polystyrene are more difficult to process and less likely to be suitable for recycling in the UK, as are plastic compounds which may contain a mixture of plastics.

Not all plastics are recyclable. Items such as crisp packets and salad bags that are designed to prevent gases escaping contain different layers of polymers in order to make them airtight. Although they preserve the contents well, they are nearly impossible to recycle due to the multiple polymers layered together.

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