Today’s let’s chat plastic and the plastics to avoid next time you are at the supermarket.
I know we are all trying to avoid plastic as best we can. And I’m not advocating the use of unnecessary plastic. But let’s have some real talk first before moving on to the plastics to avoid. Going 100% plastic-free isn’t something I have been able to achieve, or get close to.
It’s certainly a work in progress. However, the plastic-free movement is tied to a whole lot of privilege. From privilege in terms of money, time, access to shops, health, capacity, and ability. As such, it’s unlikely to become a realistic endpoint any time soon for many. Including myself. Do I feel guilty about this? No, I certainly don’t feel guilty for not being able to be plastic-free. And you shouldn’t either.
It’s also important to not lose sight of the fact that plastic waste occurs further upstream before “plastic-free” items get to us. This excellent article points out that bulk shops themselves aren’t plastic-free. Meanwhile, someone I know who makes plastic-free/packaging-free products confided in me that they can’t source the raw materials plastic-free. Plastic waste is still produced from our actions, even if we don’t physically have to deal with that waste.
So plastics come into our life, whether we like it or not. And whether we see them or not.
One thing we can do is make better choices about the types of plastic that come into our lives. One of those is to try and avoid certain types of plastic.
The Plastics to Avoid
According to research from the University of Oxford, of the plastic waste produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% of that was recycled.
In England, the government aims to recycle 50% of waste by 2020. This rises to 75% by 2035. Scotland has a target to recycle 70% of waste by 2025, as does Wales. Northern Ireland has a proposal that 60% of waste is recycled by 2020.
The array of numbers on plastic can be complex and vary from local authority area to local authority area. However, one of the best ways to help ensure that your plastic is actually recycled is to understand a bit more about the different types of plastic.
This is a really useful table from The University of Oxford about different types of plastic, and their recyclability. Every local authority area is different in what they will accept for recycling so treat this as a more general guide.
The Types of Plastic
Remember, to increase the chance of an item being recycled, make sure it’s thoroughly washed – without any food on it.
Now that we know what is and what isn’t recyclable it’s important to bear in mind that just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean that it’s economically viable to recycle. Say what? Put simply, some plastics aren’t worth the cost of recycling them.
It’s easy to forget that recycling is a global industry when we’re putting our recycling bins out on the kerb on bin day. I think a lot of us see recycling as a public service, when actually it’s a huge multi-billion pound global industry. Yep, an industry, which like any industry makes decisions based on cost-effectiveness.
The Colour of the Plastic Is Important Too
Recycling companies sell recycled plastic pellets to manufacturers as a raw material. Each different type of plastic, and crucially the different colour of the pellets commands a different value.
I’ve put together a graphic indicating the maximum price per tonne recycling companies can earn for different types of plastic. This was correct as of August 2019.
As you can see, different plastics are worth different amounts. Clear, white, and light blue plastics (both HDPE and PET plastics) are worth considerably more than coloured plastics, or composite plastics.
The reason for this variation in price is that clear, white and light blue coloured plastics can be recycled. They then can be used to make a variety of different products. It’s easy to add pigment to them to make them different colours if required by manufacturers, giving these types of plastics lots of flexibility in usage.
Coloured plastics on the other hand, when recycled, turn a murky brown colour. This isn’t particularly desirable to manufacturers as the plastics can only be made in the dark murky brown shade or darker. You can’t go lighter. As such, whilst you can put these items in the recycling bin for recycling, what you won’t see is that more than likely, further down the recycling chain, these green or red PET plastic bottles will get sifted out at a recycling centre and sent to landfill.
Takeaways on Plastics to Avoid
There’s a lot of information here/ However the main takeaways on the type of plastics to avoid are to avoid coloured PET. This is the plastic most commonly used for soft drinks, bottled water, and cooking oil. Clear ones are worth money to recyclers, but coloured ones are unlikely to be recycled due to their low value.
When choosing cleaning products and things like shampoos, and other beauty products which are commonly housed in HDPE bottles, choose products in a clear bottle preferably. If not clear then choose a white bottle. The clear bottles especially are worth nearly four times as much money to recyclers than the ones in coloured bottles. As they’re the plastic product yielding the most money to recyclers they are most likely to be recycled.
Manufacturers of eco products who use coloured plastic in their packaging know that this reduces the likelihood of the products being recycled. Treat this as a form of greenwashing. If you know of a company doing this email them, tweet them or whatever your preferred form of communication is and let them know that you’re on to them, and ask them why they aren’t using clear plastic.
Of course, plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before it isn’t viable to recycle them anymore, whatever the colour. But let’s help increase our shockingly low recycling rates by demanding that manufacturers make better packaging choices based on recycling values.
PS: If you enjoyed this, do have a read of my article on are biodegradable plastics good for the environment.