Green Tau issue 33

10th February 2022

What happens to the plastic in our recycling bin?

Each week, here in the Borough of Richmond, our black recycling boxes with their mix of metal glass, metal and plastics are collected and taken away. What happens next?

The collected waste is transported to a materials recovery facility in Mansfield where iron and aluminium, glass and different plastics are extracted via various mechanisms including magnetic drums, weight and size sifting, infra red detection and hand sorting. Once sorted the recyclable plastic is compacted into bales and dispatched on the next stage of its recycling journey.  

At the recycling facility in Leeds, the plastic waste is sorted according to the type of plastic – HDPE (high density polypropylene, PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – and according to the form of the plastic – bottles or tubs, semi rigid or film. From here the sorted plastic goes to reprocessing plants either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. The waste plastic is turned into either flakes or pellets which can then be used to make new plastic items, either totally or partially replacing virgin plastic.

From Richmond’s waste, PET bottles are recycled in the UK where they are reprocessed as new PET bottles. HDPE plastic (such as milk cartons) are sent to plants either in the UK or in Belgium where they are reprocessed into moulded items such as containers, pipes or packaging. The semi rigid pots, tubs and trays made of polypropylene (PP)  are recycled either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. The recycling process includes thoroughly cleaning the plastic to remove any contamination (you should still clean your plastic before putting it in the recycling bin). The recycled plastic are pelleted into a form that can be used to make imitation wooden items such as garden furniture. However new plants are being built which can produce food-grade recycled polypropylene (rPP).

“Packaging producer Berry is building a new polypropylene (PP) recycling facility in Leamington, United Kingdom, that  will produce food-grade materials with a target purity standard of 99.9 percent..Packaging produced from this rPP material will result in 35 percent less CO2 emissions, [&] require 50 percent less water consumption”

Soft plastics such as crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, breakfast cereal bags, frozen vegetables bags etc are not – at present -collected by local authorities. Most supermarkets will collect plastic carrier bags for recycling and an increasing number are now also making provision to collect and recycle all soft plastic packaging. These items are made from LDPE (low density poly ethylene). Being lightweight and flimsy they need different recycling equipment from that used for the denser more rigid HDPE. To recycle LDPE new recycling plants are being built.

  “Yes Recycling is currently constructing a new facility in Glenrothes, to specialise in dealing with hard-to-recycle soft plastics – including cellophane, bread wrappers and film lids – which would previously have been added to landfill, burned or exported for processing… Financed in part with a loan from Triodos Bank, the new plant will be capable of processing 15,000 tonnes of soft plastic each year, giving the waste a new life by turning it into plastic flakes and pellets for manufacture, as well as a pioneering alternative to plywood, developed over the past 12 years, that can be used in construction.”—how-a-pioneering-new-facility-is-tackling-plastic-waste  The recycling plant is co-owned by the Morrisons supermarket chain.

To close the loop, we should expect to be able to buy products in bottles and containers made of recycled plastic. As of September 2021 all plastic bottles of 500ml or less for Coca-Cola will be made of  100% recycled plastic and will continue to be fully recyclable. 

Hellman’s squeezable mayonnaise bottles are also made of 100% recycled plastic whilst Persia laundry liquid bottles are made of 70% recycled plastic. Both brands are owned by Unilever. 

As consumers we can ask producers to both supply products in recyclable packaging and ask  that such packaging itself be made from recycled material. Equally we can seek out products that do not require additional packaging or that can be dispensed into refillable containers. This avoids the need to collect and recycle the packaging which – as can be seen above -can involved shipping waste over long distances and through various stages of processing. 

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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