Before you can know how to recycle plastic, you need to know what type of plastic you have in your hand. There are many different types of plastic. Some are easy to recycle plastics that should be made use of. There are other types of plastic that are so difficult to recycle they have no value.
When we take the trouble to recycle the general waste that we generate, it’s usually straightforward when it comes to separating out each commodity and putting it where each has to go. But when it comes to how to recycle plastic, the range of different types of plastic can cause some confusion.
It would make life a whole lot easier if there was only one type of plastic used for all packaging and plastic bottles. Maybe, one day, this will happen but, for now, we have to separate each plastic type so that recovered plastics can be reconstituted into new plastic products.
There appears to be seven different types of plastic that we come into contact with in our daily lives. They all have the potential to be recycled but some plastics are more difficult to recycle than others. Luckily, we don’t need to worry too much about the specific plastics that we are handling.
There is some confusion about what you need to do to recycle plastic. A good place to start is to establish with your local authority what exactly it is that they want and how they want you to separate household waste when it comes to how to recycle plastic.
How to recycle plastic bottles
It’s important to attempt to recycle plastic but some waste recycling authorities seem to prefer different ways of going about things. For example, some want plastic bottles with their tops screwed on while others want them left off.
With a bit of guidance from your local waste collection authorities, there are things we can do, at home, to help with any national recycling campaign.
Here’s some basic tips that should work for you wherever you are, when it comes to how to recycle plastic:
Replace the lids
The general rule with most waste collection authorities is to leave the bottle tops on and squeeze out as much air from the bottle as possible. This will create a shape that won’t roll around on a conveyor belt, making it easier for the sorting process, either mechanical or manual. Squashed bottles won’t take up so much space in the waste bin, or bags, that are used for collecting waste to be recycled.
Where there are plastic sorting machines, they may not be able to pick up items that are as small as a bottle top on its own. The same applies to plastic drinking straws, which need to be retained inside the carton for recycling.
How to recycle plastic bags
Supermarkets take back bags
You can return plastic bags to supermarkets and some other large shops, to be recycled. This is useful to know if you want to know how to recycle plastic bags in particular. However, plastic carrier bags tend to be of little or no value when it comes to recycling. Don’t let this be an excuse for not recycling plastic bags. There are many good reasons for everyone to control and contain plastic bags.
It isn’t just the supermarket carrier bags that they take to be recycled, they will also take other plastic bags and wrappers. When you get a pack of anything e.g. paper towels, it’s usually covered with plastic film to keep it all together. This and many other plastic coverings can be recycled.
Other plastic bags that can be recycled include freezer bags or plastic bags that are sealable. These can be taken to some of the large retailers where they have a plastic recycle collection facility. It’s important to be aware that, for plastic of any kind to be recycled, it needs to be clean.
To make it easy for others in the chain of events that goes together to recycle plastic bags or plastic film, try to keep the plastic clean. Do what you can to wash and dry any plastic bags that have had food in them.
You may need to remove sealing strips or zippers from plastic freezer bags before they are accepted to be recycled.
Of all the plastic that we get hold of, plastic bags are different. They are lightweight and, usually, tough. This often leaves the option open to recycle plastic bags by reusing them.
The plastic bags that are supplied by large shops are usually of a good enough quality to be used over and over again. It’s easy to keep these types of plastic bags clean because food items that you carry in them are usually wrapped in their own wrappers.
Some plastic bags, that are provided by shops, can be quite big. Especially plastic bags with the shop-brand on them that come from clothes shops. Larger plastic bags are too good to throw away. They can be used for storing large items.
If you have such a large item that even the largest plastic bags aren’t big enough, use two plastic bags and pull them over the item, one from one direction and the other from the other to create an overlap.
When you store anything in plastic bags, big or small, they serve to be excellent dust covers. Some plastic bags may be big enough to use as a small bin liner for collecting rubbish.
Plastic bags don’t always need to be used as bags. If you have plenty of large plastic bags, they can be useful for plants in the garden. Take a sharp knife or scissors to open out plastic bags into small sheets of plastic which can then be draped over plants to keep the frost off.
You need to be ready for when the wind catches up. You won’t want to see opened-out plastic bags flying around like kites. Opened-out plastic bags can also be used as an effective liner in trays where moisture is involved.
Clean plastic bags can also be used as a filler that can be packed around items that need to be sent through the post. However you make use of the plastic bags that come your way, there will come a point when you will need to either send them off to be recycled, if they are clean enough or, if they’ve become contaminated, send them off to landfill.
The down side of plastic bags
Plastic bags are extremely useful in the modern world. If we didn’t have them we would find life difficult. The issue that we have is the success in having developed plastic bags that are almost everlasting. When we have finished with each plastic bag that comes into our possession, the plastic material in plastic bags can remain as plastic for a very long time.
Here, we’ve considered ways of reusing plastic bags but there is a limit to what we can do as individuals. There are an enormous amount of plastic bags made each year.
Why we need to recycle plastic bags
There needs to be a plan in place to ensure that they aren’t allowed to just drift around in the environment because where this happens they risk causing adverse effects to wildlife, large or small, that encounters these man-made materials of modern times for which evolution hasn’t adjusted.
Whichever way your used plastic bags go, you need to ensure that they go to a destination that is final. They need to be recycled or managed in a way that doesn’t leave the world with an on-going problem for others to deal with later.
The adverse effects of plastic bags on the environment
Because we’ve done such a good job of making plastic bags they tend to last for a very long time but they will eventually break down into smaller pieces. In the presence of prolonged ultraviolet light, plastic will gradually disintegrate. The structure of plastic bags, of any type will form cracks and the whole bag will fall apart.
If you leave any plastic bags in a place where the sun can get at them for a length of time, you will notice that the colouring will fade and when you pick them up they will feel brittle to the touch. It’s at this point that plastic bags will disintegrate into flakes of plastic.
The general view is that when plastics break down under the effect of ultraviolet light, toxins are released into the environment. This is one good reason why we need to recycle plastic bags, and all types of plastic, in a way that manages its eventual demise.
The two biggest and most important reasons why we need to recycle plastic bags in a way that spares the environment are:
- We must avoid plastic bags or any other type of plastic from entering the sea. When plastic breaks down it becomes fragmented into very fine particles. This becomes ingested by the vast range of living organisms that live in the sea.
Some of these life-forms are big enough to cope with the intake of such particles; they will, most likely pass through. But there are some microorganisms that are adversely affected. Research into the subject of the effects of plastics being allowed, or even dumped, into the sea, is showing disturbing results.
- We must avoid the burning of plastic where the burning process isn’t controlled. This can happen on landfill sites where the plastic content in a part of the dump ignites or unauthorised fires where plastic is being burned to make it vanish.
There is, however, a case for burning plastic in a controlled manner that ensures burning at a high-enough temperature. This is being achieved in modern waste-to-energy plants where plastic is burned at such high temperatures that complete oxidising takes place and there are no toxic vapours emitted.
As a final destination, the controlled burning of plastic to produce energy may be the ideal way to recycle plastic bags.
Looking at how to recycle plastic
You can recycle plastic containers
This category includes plastic ice-cream tubs, deli containers, butter tubs and yogurt cups. These items need to be cleaned before being sent to be recycled but they should be easier to clean than plastic bags that have contained food.
Here, we will look at the different types of plastic that you will regularly come into contact with and give a bit of a guide to help you decide how to recycle plastics generally.
Do you need to focus on the specific types of plastic?
No. As far as we can tell there are no waste collection authorities that want you, in your home, to separate out polypropylene from polyethylene plastics. It’s enough for you to clean up whatever waste plastic bottles, tubs and bags that you have and put them in the designated box, or bag, to be presented for collection.
For those who are interested, here are four of the most used and recycled types of plastics that you are likely to come across among all the waste plastics that will appear in your home:
Look for the PP symbol. Ice cream tubs, margarine tubs and ready-meal containers are usually made from polypropylene plastic
- High Density Polyethylene
Look for the HDPE symbol. This is usually used for making plastic bottles.
- Low Density Polyethylene
Look for the LDPE symbol. Plastic bin liners and carrier bags are usually made from this.
- Polyethylene Terephthalate
Look for the PET symbol. This plastic is often used for making water bottles and plastic trays.
Look for the symbols on the carton
Somewhere on a plastic carton there will be a symbol that indicates whether the plastic can be recycled. The symbols are usually hidden on the base of the carton and moulded into the plastic. For a carton that’s made from Polypropylene, you will see this symbol in some form or other:
The symbols that appear on plastic cartons will help you to decide if they are recyclable or not but beyond that, the information can be seen as, largely, academic.
Remember, you won’t need to recycle plastic if you don’t use it!
Can you reduce the need for plastic in your life?
Plastic packaging plays an important part in most people’s lives. Out of all the household waste that we handle, plastic is one of the easier components to prepare for collection to be recycled into new plastic products.
But you may find that there are ways that you can reduce the need for plastic. Let’s consider some of the options that may work for you:
- When you go to a supermarket, try to buy loose products rather than pre-packed. You may need to use the provided plastic bags but the overall need for plastic can be reduced.
- When you reach the checkout at a supermarket, take a look around for any cardboard boxes that may be lying around. They don’t mind if you grab them to place items in rather than use plastic bags. It saves them from having to get rid of them and you may have other uses for them at home. Ultimately you can tear cardboard into bits and put it in the compost.
- Take reusable plastic bags to the grocery shops to avoid using the bags that they provide.
- Cling Film plastic is useful and has a place for keeping food airtight and fresh but consider alternative materials that can do the same thing. Experiment with plastic Tupperware boxes and try out some of the beeswax wraps that are out there.
- Look around and see if you can find local shops that encourage shoppers to bring their own plastic containers to be refilled. You may be able to collect and store dry ingredients like rice and pasta.
- Find coffee shops that will let you fill a reusable cup rather than use the takeaway plastic cups. Remember, you won’t need to recycle plastic that isn’t used.
- Find a reusable water bottle to refill. This will cut out plastic single-use bottles.
- A small thing you can do at restaurants is to ask for paper drinking straws rather than the standard plastic straws.
- Consider using solid bar soap rather than liquid soap in plastic bottles.
- If you have a large item delivered from a retailer, for example a fridge, ask the delivery driver to take any plastic wrapping away to be recycled.
- Use a milk delivery service that reuses glass bottles. This may be a little more expensive than using plastic bottles as washing of glass bottles will be necessary.
- Avoid using single use plastic knives and forks, cups, plates and takeaway trays.
- Avoid buying food or other products that come in black plastic containers because some sorting machines find it difficult to detect black plastic as being plastic. Black plastic tends to go straight through the system without being picked up to be recycled. Mixed or multicoloured plastics can be detected but some machines are colour-blind when it comes to identifying carbon-black plastic.
- Do your bit to recycle plastic. Present plastic waste that’s intended for recycling to a standard that’s clean and easy for others to handle.
How to dispose of Styrofoam
How to dispose of Styrofoam?
Unfortunately the usual way to dispose of styrofoam is to put it in the bin, to be sent to landfill. Where this needs to be done, there are ways to prevent it from blowing all over the countryside. Styrofoam is known to be difficult to recycle. However, there are ways to make use of it.
There appear to be problems when it comes to styrofoam and how to dispose of it. One report being that there aren’t enough facilities available to recycle it. This is surprising when there always seems to be enough of it around. Almost every time we open a box with an electrical item in it, it’s wedged in between a specially moulded formation of white styrofoam.
Styrofoam, also known as expanded polystyrene (EPS) is, technically, a plastic. There are three main options that you have if you are pressed to do something with a quantity of styrofoam:
- Throw it in the bin, to go to landfill
- Send a batch of styrofoam to be recycled, where there are the facilities.
- Find ways to reuse styrofoam in and around your home.
Dispose of styrofoam in the bin
This shouldn’t be the first choice when you have any plastic waste material to dispose of but with styrofoam, this appears to be one of the recommended routes. Before you put any pieces of styrofoam in the trash bin, take a close look at it to see if there is anything attached to it that could be removed and sent elsewhere to be recycled. There may be pieces of paper or cardboard stuck to it that can be removed. Some have noted that there can be pieces of other types of plastic and, occasionally, glass that can be recycled.
When you have items made of styrofoam, they can be quite large, especially if it’s part of the packaging of a large item in a box. To make life easy for yourself and everybody else, cut the styrofoam blocks into smaller pieces. Cutting of styrofoam is recommended rather than just breaking it into smaller pieces. If you attempt to particulate large blocks of styrofoam by breaking it apart, you will undoubtedly shatter it into pieces that will generate crumbs of styrofoam that will go everywhere.
Having cut up your styrofoam, it will be easier to load it into a plastic bag which will take up less space than the original packaging blocks. Cut-up pieces of styrofoam that are packed in plastic bags can be easily thrown into a trash bin with all of your other trash.
Looking at how to dispose of styrofoam
Styrofoam can be recycled
Where there are the facilities to do it, styrofoam can be recycled. It’s, usually, only white styrofoam that gets to be recycled. Coloured styrofoam will probably be rejected when presented to be recycled. It’s worth asking recycling centres about this and their general policies when it comes to recycling styrofoam. Some have reported that recycling centres prefer to take solid blocks of styrofoam but they’re not so keen to take styrofoam ‘peanuts’ that are often used for packing.
The recycling centre may ask that you look for the triangular recycle symbol that’s, usually, visible in a pronounced area on the surface of each block of styrofoam. If you have blocks of basic, white styrofoam, you should find the triangular recycle symbol with the number ‘6’ inside it. The recycle symbol will be moulded into each separate block of styrofoam.
Plastic polystyrene, the difficult one!
Styrofoam, also known as polystyrene, can be recycled into other plastics which can then be formed into other products.
Styrofoam containers that have been used for food, plates or drinking cups can’t be recycled because they have become contaminated. It makes no difference if the triangle with the number ‘6’ is displayed on the styrofoam piece. Only clean and, generally, white styrofoam can be recycled. The only way to dispose of styrofoam that has been used as any type of food container, is to place it in the trash bin.
However, if you take the trouble to thoroughly clean styrofoam food containers to the point where they are so clean that they look like new, it may be worth contacting your local recycle centre. If you have a large enough quantity of food-used styrofoam containers that are clean enough, they may take them for recycling.
If you’re keen to have styrofoam recycled, you need to contact your local recycle or drop-off site and explain that you want to dispose of styrofoam packaging or a large quantity of ultra-clean styrofoam food containers. They will tell you what their requirements are. If you have industrial volumes of styrofoam which you would like to see recycled, there may be a fee to dispose of it.
Another way to dispose of styrofoam is to mail it to a recycle centre. Although bulky, styrofoam is light-weight. Sending it away by mail is an option, if there are no local facilities set up to dispose of styrofoam, provided that you remove all contaminants, cut it up and pack it in a way that takes up the minimum of space during shipping.
Recycle styrofoam by finding a use for it in your home
Think about what you could make from leftover styrofoam from packaging that’s turned up. Bring out the ‘craft’ in you. Styrofoam is easy to shape by cutting. You may want to acquire a hot-wire device that’s designed for the purpose of cutting styrofoam. If you use one of these you may want to use it where there’s plenty of ventilation because the melting of styrofoam does tend to release fumes.
Be creative with styrofoam
Styrofoam, in an artist’s hands, can make an ideal base material for some most impressive sculptures. The surface texture of styrofoam is ideal for taking paint. If you get into the habit of using it for home decorating, you may not need to dispose of styrofoam at all.
How to recycle k cups
How to recycle k cups
To recycle K cups effectively you need to separate out all the components that are involved. These include the plastic cup, the aluminium foil, the paper filter and the coffee grounds. All the individual elements can be recycled. There are devices available that will help you to dismantle the complete k cup.
Look out for a device called the ‘Recycle-a-cup’. This is a nifty device that, when applied to the k cup, will separate the main components with a quick twist. Once the k cup has become dismantled, the parts can be removed to be recycled. This includes the plastic cup.
If you are in the habit of using a lot of k cups, then, you will need to check which plastic the cup is made of. Look for the recycle symbol. It will be somewhere on the plastic and see what the number is in the triangular symbol. If you use different brands of the k cup style, you may find that the types of plastics used may differ.
The aluminium foil extracted from a k cup can be placed in the relevant recycle bin. The good news is that the paper filter and the coffee grounds can be put in the compost bin.
Looking at how to recycle k cups
So, you can recycle k cups. The parts of a k cup can be used again. All it takes is a moment to pull the k cup assembly apart, after use, and send the parts to be recycled.
We’ve already looked at things that we can do with styrofoam, if you have a creative mind. Now consider what could be done to recycle k cups and make use of them in an artistic way.
Here’s some ideas that may be worth trying if you’re wondering how to recycle k cups and give them a new lease of life:
- Grow small plants in k cups
K cups can be used as small plant pots. It’s being emphasised that it’s not wise to grow plants that you will want to eat, in a k cup. The plastic of k cups appears to deteriorate if constantly exposed to water. They are ideal for growing small, ornamental plants but it’s not advised to consume plants that have been growing in a k cup.
- Colouring eggs using k cups
Use a k cup for holding the coloured dyes that you need for colouring the two halves or whole eggs. It’s not advised that you eat the eggs when using k cups for this method of colour-dying because of potential contaminants that may be released when repeatedly exposing the k cup to water.
- Use k cups as small stores
You could recycle k cups into containers for storing small items e.g. paper clips or buttons. With a little imagination, a k cup can be decorated. It’s not advised to store food items in k cups because of potential contaminants.
- Make a string of lights out of k cups
You will need to use LED light bulbs for this. Traditional bulbs tend to produce a lot of heat which will risk overheating the k cup, causing melting or burning. When you have decided on the type of LED bulbs that you’re going to use, drill a small hole in the bottom of the k cup, to take a bulb.
Recycle k cups into a lighting display
Taking care to ensure that the wiring is done correctly and safely, it’s possible to set up an arrangement of lights using an array of k cups. This works well when using different coloured light bulbs. The thin plastic of k cup sends out an impressive glow. Few people will guess that your display ever came from old k cups.
Reminder & warning
K cups must not be exposed to excessive heat. This applies to all plastics. K cups are made from thin plastic that will melt like wax if heated and become highly combustible.
Always remember that k cups, although convenient, are a single-use product. Most people will use k cups for the single purpose for which they are designed. If you’re one of those that’s creative, k cups can be fun to use for other things. Just be careful with how you use them and take note of the points made here.
What plastic cannot be recycled?
A good place to start when working out what plastic cannot be recycled and what can, is the recycle resin code number. This number will be found in the triangular symbol that will be moulded into the plastic product. The lower the number in the resin code triangle the easier it will be to get the plastic recycled.
We’ve found a list of some items that are made entirely from plastic or have plastic components that, generally, cannot be recycled:
- Food trays made of black plastic
It isn’t necessarily that black plastic can not be recycled. The problem here is the colour. When plastic items are presented, at a facility, to be recycled, the modern scanners that are programmed to pick out plastic items can’t distinguish between black plastic items and the black conveyor belt that carry all the items.
- Crisp packets
Crisp packets cannot be recycled. Modern crisp packets are made from multi-layers of a form of metallised-plastic film. If it were possible to extract each layer, then, it may be possible to recycle them but the procedure to do this is not with us for the time being. With no facility to recycle crisp packets, we cannot put them in a recycling box.
- Yoghurt pots
If you handle a yoghurt pot, you need to look for the triangular recycle symbol. If you see the number 5 with PP under it, then, this is polypropylene which can and should be recycled. But so many yoghurt pots are made from PVC or polystyrene which cannot be recycled.
- Plastic take-away food boxes
Take-away food boxes and trays tend to be made from polystyrene. Among all the plastics that should be recycled, this has proved to be a difficult one as we’ve mentioned earlier. Polystyrene or styrofoam is a light but bulky material which is difficult to compact for transporting and for recycling processes to be viable.
- Plastic squeezable-tubes
Here, we’re looking at toothpaste tubes and any other tubes that contain creams or ointments. These items cannot be recycled because most of them contain a variety of different materials which will cause a conflict during any attempt to recycle them.
The technology isn’t, currently, available to separate aluminium from toothpaste tubes. Added to this, many of these tubes are made from an assortment of different plastics. All of this means that plastic squeeze-tubes cannot be recycled.
Can you recycle black plastic?
The answer to this appears to be generally no, you can’t recycle black plastic. But if you have a quantity of black plastic that you want to dispose of there are agencies around the country, in the UK, that will collect it, for a fee, and will either send it to landfill or to be incinerated.
However, in the UK there is one black plastic collection service that has a facility to recycle black plastic that’s often collected from farms. Agriculture uses large amounts of black plastic. It’s used for crop storing purposes e.g. silage clamp coverings which need to be large enough to cover the entire surface of a clamp.
A trip to the countryside will often reveal a display of round bales of silage that are usually covered with black plastic to keep the bales of silage airtight, thus preserved. The black plastic that’s used on farms is, normally, used only once but it may be possible to recycle, on farm, parts of large sheets of black plastic from silage clamps. Most of the time, large sheets are cut up as the silage clamp is being consumed. This presents a large amount of cut-off strips of black plastic that need to be disposed of.
Black plastic is seen as being particularly bad for the environment
A University study has shown that some black plastics contain chemicals. Among these you will find lead and bromine. This may have something to do with black plastic being recycled from other plastics, including the fitments from household electrical items that are, themselves, plastic which may become contaminated by elements from a previous life.
This appears to be one of the problems of black plastic. Apart from there being limited facilities for picking out black plastic on a conveyor belt loaded with plastic waste, black plastic is, itself, generated from recycled plastic.
Why is black plastic black?
The black in black plastic is a cover colour. When plastics are recycled, there’s no avoiding the vast range of colours that will turn up. If they were all mixed together without an overriding colour to go with it, the recycled end products would be all different colours. In an age where aesthetics are important, products that emerge which display no control of the finished colour, just won’t do.
It’s all about the look of it. All different colours of compatible plastics are mixed together. Then, a carbon-black pigment is added to mask out all of the different colours that the mix started with, leaving us with black plastic..
How safe is black plastic?
Black plastic, in its solid and stable form, is safe to have in our lives. But in view of the fact that the input components that are recycled to make black plastic may contain chemicals that shouldn’t be ingested, it would be wise to avoid using it near food.
Where black plastic is used to wrap around boxes or stacked products, this shouldn’t be a problem. Neither should it be a problem for farmers to use black plastic bale wrap for covering and sealing round-bales of silage.
We can all recycle plastic, one way or another!