Why can’t I recycle some types of plastic?

If you look at recycling labels on packaging, you will notice that some plastic parts are indicated as not currently recycled. There are three different messages following the indication of plastic composition on recycling labels: widely recycled, check local recycling and not currently recycled. But why is that? Why are some plastics not recycled and why are some recycled in just certain places? What’s the difference between these plastics?

Sad little girl lying on the garbage filled grass - plastic pollution concept

Currently, less than a quarter of all plastic used in the UK is recycled. This is partly because of improper waste disposal by individuals so please read our post on recycling to help improve this statistic and read recycling labels carefully.  But it is also because not all plastic is recycled in every area. The truth is that all plastics could be recycled in theory but some require expensive techniques or are just hard to transport and handle. There 4 main reasons why a type of plastic may not be recycled:

1. Too expensive to recycle

Plastic is usually melted in the recycling process but some types of plastic have a different composition structure and burn when heated instead of melting. These are called thermoset plastics and are created by adding chemicals in their production, such as urea formaldehyde. They are used in adhesives, electrical fittings and tableware. They are harder, resistant to chemicals and good electrical insulators and that is why they are used when there is contact with heat or electricity. In addition, they produce carbon dioxide and other toxic gases when burned, requiring chemical processes to break them safely before recycling. However, these processes are too expensive at the moment and industry, in general, does not recycle them.

 

colored kitchenware on a black background, different color of kitchen utensils
Tableware and cookware are made of plastic that is too expensive to recycle

 

2. Risk of contamination

This is usually the case with cling film, plastic food wrap and food trays. These materials are usually soiled with food residues that can contaminate not only the plastic materials but also the other recyclable materials included in the same bin bag, such as paper and cardboard.

The transportation and sorting process that occurs before recycling can take several days and even weeks and if the material is not properly cleaned it can form mould and attract pests. Because of this, many local recycling authorities do not accept these plastics.

They are usually labelled as not currently recycled but please note this message just means that less than 20% of councils do not accept this. You should still check your local council by entering your postcode here.

Roll of wrapping plastic stretch film.
Cling film may not be collected for recycling because of contamination risk

3. Difficult to transport or handle

Another reason related to financial aspects is the cost of transport. In remote or difficult to access areas, such as islands, it might not be economically viable to transport plastic for recycling. Handling may also be difficult for certain plastic materials, such as polystyrene packaging, because they easily break into small pieces, complicating the sorting process and even posing a risk to machines used in the process that can be obstructed and damaged by these fragments. Polystyrene materials are usually collected at dedicated drop-off points to avoid these issues at the sorting phase.

Polystyrene chips s-shaped in a cardboard box
Polystyrene is hard to sort and clogs machines

4. Not enough buyers

And the final reason related to financial aspects is that innovation in the packaging industry created new types of plastic and there are not enough buyers interested in recycling them yet. This is the case with specific plastic trays and pots for meat, yoghurt and other dairy products. Plastic bottles have been recycled for more than 20 years now but some of these packaging types were just developed in the last decade and there is not enough demand from recyclers to make collection economically viable.

Female hand is sorting empty wine bottle to the green bag and plastic bottles to yellow bag
Check recycling collection instructions in your area

Most reasons are related to the profitability of the recycling process so it is expected that in the future new technologies will reduce the cost of the process, making it economically viable to recycle all types of plastic. But you do not need to wait for innovations, you can do your part by learning more about recycling in your area and disposing of your waste correctly. You should also avoid plastic as it can be toxic and damaging to your health as we explain in this post. Wood, bamboo and glass can be good materials to substitute plastic. Remember that reducing the use of and recycling plastic is good for your health, your family and the planet and Green It Yourself… Now!

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