Ecoworrier 3 – Plastic

Him Indoors gets home from work to find me standing in the kitchen, staring intently at a yoghurt pot.

HI: Problem?
Me: I can’t recycle this.
HI: Nope.
Me: But why?
HI: Cos it’s made out of polystyrene or something, probably.
Me: Why can’t they recycle polystyrene?
HI: Dunno.
Me: And then there’s margarine tubs, what are they made of?
HI: Dunno.
Me: And then there’s…
HI: Can we talk about something else now?

Understandably, this does not make for an inspiring conversation when you’ve just got home from work. But I’m annoyed by the seemingly arbitrary rules about which plastics can be recycled, and which can’t.

Wandsworth have a great recycling scheme, in that you can just bung everything in an orange sack, and they’ll take it away and deal with it. No sorting into five different bins, for which you need a specially segmented drawer and a metal detector, it’s really straightforward. Except for the fact that there is a list of plastics which they don’t recycle, including yoghurt pots, plastic bottle lids and margarine tubs. This is confusing to a bear of very little brain such as myself, because they look pretty similar to bottles to me.

Happily, the labelling on food packaging has recently been simplified. Rather than a confusing combination of triangles, numbers and initials, you now get a breakdown of the packaging components and a grid telling you whether each bit is “widely recycled” (65% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items), “check locally” (15% – 65% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items) or “not recycled” (less than 15% of people have access to recycling facilities for these items.) Admittedly if you were really interested this is less useful than finding out exactly what your packaging is made from, but frankly, life is too short.

So what is it that makes some plastics recyclable, and some not? First of all, there are some lovely videos at about how plastic bottles and various other things are recycled in the first place.

It seems that bottle lids must be removed not because they’re made from plastic which can’t be recycled, but because they are made of different plastic from the rest of the bottle, and so would contaminate the plastic if still attached to the bottles as they go through the recycling plant.

As for margarine tubs and yoghurt pots, these are currently not recyclable because they are made of mixed polymers, which are much more difficult to identify and separate efficiently, and would again contaminate the rest of the plastic if they were melted down along with all the bottles.

If it were possible to make bottle tops, margarine tubs and yoghurt pots using the same processes as bottles (i.e. blow-moulding, I think) then I guess they could all be made out of the same plastics and melted down for recycling together. Also, if there were a market for the recycled plastic that these items are currently made from, then the infrastructure would gradually be put in place to enable this to happen.

As it is, there’s not a lot we can do except to (a) wait for better recycling technology to come along (b) support the market for recycled plastics by buying loads of lovely recycled stuff (c) buy fewer items made of these ‘non-recyclables’ in the first place and (d) use margarine tubs and yoghurt pots as plant/seedling pots and craft materials for the time being, so that at least they don’t end up in landfill.

Author: Rachel Wheeley

Comedian, podcaster, full time Mum, based in London, UK

3 thoughts on “Ecoworrier 3 – Plastic”

  1. Great post Rach. I get really peeved about how inconsistent we are with our approach to recycling. You’d think a relatively small country (area wise) would be able to do it just one way wouldn’t you?

    I had extensive correspondence with Yeo Valley just after I started blogging because I couldn’t understand why their pots (and so many other companies’ pots, not just yoghurts) were made out of Type 5 (I forget what that gets translated as) plastic. Their response was that a Type 5 recycling facility was promised when they were designing their packaging. However, 2 years further down the line it doesn’t appear to be here yet :(

    I hope you and little Wilb are doing well :)

  2. Noticed this morning there’s another, more confusing labelling scheme around. Have done a follow-up post and linked back to you.

  3. Luckily, my local authority simply has a grey wheelie for recyclables and even takes larger recyclable objects which won’t fit in. Good service, I’d say.

    But, it is still quite unclear, particularly on plastics. As a result, I just bung everything plastic into the grey bin but wonder just how vigilant the council is behind the scenes. I’ve hear rumours that it all goes to landfill anyway, but am not cynical enough to believe that?!

    Also, does anyone know what the problem is, with expanded polystyrene, when non-expanded, ie, clear plastic seems to be recyclable?

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