A guide to the different types of plastic & recycling options

The amount of plastic produced every year is staggeringly equal to the weight of all humanity. That’s truly shocking, and yet we still don’t recycle over 90% of plastic. Many of us understand that this has to change – we know plastic harms our planet, failing to break down for centuries and choking our oceans. However, it’s hard because plastic recycling is complex. This is, at least in part, because of all the different types of plastic making it difficult for the consumer to understand that there are also different types of plastic recycling. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t possible with recycling.

This Wearth guide simplifies the different types of plastic. By understanding these different types of plastic, and specifically the types of recyclable plastic, it’s easier to make decisions about your own plastic use. This will help you make the right choices when it comes to the plastic no longer being needed.

7 types of household plastic

Broadly, there are seven types of plastic that you will find in the average UK home. Each has further subcategories. Identification codes for different types of plastic are often stamped on plastic, particularly packaging, making it easier for you to identify its type. These codes are the triangle of arrows with a number between 1 and 7 on them. This implies that the plastic can be recycled. However, this is dependent on multiple other factors – individual to individual and council to council – making it much harder in reality.

Additionally, all plastics, even those which are easier to recycle, can leach toxic chemicals. As such, it is best to avoid plastic as much as possible, opting for glass or metal where you can.

1. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

This is broadly called recyclable plastic and is commonly used for single use clear plastic such as drinks bottles, yoghurt pots, toiletry bottles, soft fruit punnets etc.

When PET is recycled, it is transformed into a polyester fabric which can be used for making clothes like fleeces, as well as carpets. It can also be recycled to make new PET products.

Whilst many councils offer PET recycling as their main offering, in reality we only succeed in recycling about 25% of all PET plastics produced each year. Many end up in landfill or the ocean.

2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE)

Thought of as the ‘safest’ plastic, as it has a high resistance and therefore less likely to leach toxins, HDPE is used in a range of ways, including in some single use plastics. You can find it used in detergent, cosmetics, cleaning products, milk and juice bottles, as well as things like plastic bags, toys, chairs, pipes, crates and ropes. It’s commonly the plastic used in bottle caps.

You can safely reuse HDPE plastic items yourself. It can also be commonly recycled up to 10 times. However, we only succeed in recycling around 12% of HDPE each year. It’s important to check your particular council’s recycling scheme to see if and how they recycle HDPE. When recycled, it can be turned into new bottles and things like plastic pens.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

PVC is in common usage but cannot be easily recycled. However, it is still very widely used in a variety of ways – from blister packaging in pharmaceuticals to plastic pipes and garden furniture. It’s also in cling film. Most local councils do not recycle PVC.

PVC is a tricky plastic and notoriously harmful. When heated it leaches toxins which aren’t good for either you or the planet.

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

This is one of the oldest types of polythene and is considered to be ‘safe’ in terms of toxins, but still only just over 50% is recycled so it’s still not exactly fabulous! Increasingly, recycling schemes are getting better at handling LDPE.

LDPE is used in things like bread bags, shopping bags, squeezable bottles, packaging trays, containers and foam, bubble wrap, and some plastic wraps.

When LDPE is recycled, it is often turned into new bin liners.

5. Polypropylene (PP)

PP plastic is actually quite straightforward to recycle, relatively speaking. But we’ve still got a long way as a society to go, before we are all actually doing it regularly. Only a tiny percentage of the PP plastic produced each year gets recycled.

PP is really commonly used, in things such as yoghurt pots, plastic bottle tops, disposable nappies, cereal box liner bags, take-away tubs, and disposable cutlery and straws. It’s lightweight and fairly heat resistant.

Whilst PP can be recycled, you need to check directly with your council as to whether they do actually recycle it, as many don’t.

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Polystyrene is a big problem in environmental terms. It’s traditionally been used for various packaging materials because it is lightweight. Fortunately, more and more businesses are moving away from its use. And of course, we really welcome the move to the reusable mug over polystyrene café cups!

Polystyrene breaks up and disperses into the environment, ending up as microplastics. Polystyrene is incredibly difficult to recycle and as such, isn’t offered by local authority recycling schemes. It really is best to avoid using PS as much as possible.

7. Other – Non Recyclable Plastic

This last category covers a wide range of miscellaneous plastics which cannot be recycled including polycarbonate, acrylic, nylon, and polyactide. It covers many BPA products which are often used in things like sports drinks bottles.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

Whilst our list of types of plastic shows that many can be recycled, too many don’t actually end up being recycled. Additionally, the recycling process isn’t always environmentally sound, in and of itself.

As such, the best policy when it comes to plastic use is to reduce the amount you use, reuse what you can, and then recycle what you can’t.

Make lifestyle choices to reduce the amount of plastic you buy by opting for non-plastic packaging, or choosing a reusable water bottle instead of buying single use bottles. We’ve come up with lots of ways in which you can reduce your plastic use. Check out our article on how to reduce your plastic footprint.