The recyclability of plastic has long been a hot topic. For sure, the way in which the world currently uses and consumes plastic is not sustainable. However, that doesn’t mean plastic can’t play a huge role in reducing our environmental impact and fighting climate change.
Afterall, plastic is an incredibly versatile material that can be durable, flexible, protective and lightweight, and we use it in a huge range of applications throughout our day-to-day lives and processes. We need to find ways to continue to use plastic whilst also reducing its environmental impact and raw material consumption.
A key player in this could be the plastic polymer, polythene. This article will explore whether it is recyclable, how much it is recycled and its potential advantages over other packaging materials.
Yes, polythene is recyclable!
Before we get too much into the details, let’s just recap on something important. Polythene is a type of plastic. Therefore, whilst not all plastics can be recycled, all polythenes* can (*theoretically… we’ll come onto that later in this article).
Polythene (or polyethylene) is the most common plastic used today and is classified into three types:
Each can be broken down and used in the manufacture of another product, reducing the consumption of raw materials and oils.
While polythene can be recycled, that doesn’t necessarily mean it always is.
Some plastics, such as Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) (used to make drinks bottles), are relatively easy to recycle and are therefore widely recycled. You are able to put this in your recycling bin at home to be collected curbside.
However, some forms of polythene, such as High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (used to make thicker bottles for bleach and shampoo) and Low Density Polythene (LDPE) (used for more flexible plastic uses e.g. plastic bags) are more difficult to recycle. Because of this, these aren’t always collected curbside and you would have to check with your local council as to whether they accept it. For instance, although LDPE is recyclable, just 5% of what is produced gets recycled.
Essentially, different councils have access to different infrastructure.
Some councils can offer the recycling of a broad range of plastics, including polythene, as they can make use of quality facilities that can handle the different recycling methods.
Other councils might not have access to as many recycling facilities, and can therefore not offer the same recycling service. This means they have to decline certain materials from going into the recycling bin, with types of plastic being a common one to be rejected due to it often being more difficult to recycle. Furthermore, councils employ many different companies to collect and sort their plastics, adding further variation from council to council.
The plastic recycling infrastructure in the UK nationwide simply isn’t good enough to take advantage of polythene as a force for good in the fight against climate change.
Thankfully, there are alternative ways to ensure used polythene gets put back into the manufacturing process of new products.
For example, some major supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op) will now recycle products for you. You simply bring them certain products that you can’t recycle at home, including flexible plastics.
Furthermore, some suppliers and manufacturers of plastic products will also accept used plastic back which they will then recycle. This is a win-win; you get to recycle your used product, and they can put the material back into their production process to create new products.
A number of environmentally friendly, plant-based polythenes also now exist such as “IP Performance” and “IPPlant” which we’ll discuss later in this article.
Firstly, it’s important to separate the plastic from the rest of the items submitted for recycling such as paper and cardboard.
Once that has been done, you need to sort the plastics from one another. The different thicknesses dictate which machines are required to break it down. For example, a plastic bag will require a different machine to break it down compared to a thick and hard plastic bottle. Plastic also needs to be sorted by colour, as a dyed plastic may alter the appearance of the new plastic product it is made into, so often they will be separated between clear and dyed. Don’t worry, the dyed product can still be recycled! It just needs to be dyed a darker colour to hide the original colour, and can then be used for black plastic products such as bin liners.
Next, the plastic needs to be broken down into more manageable pieces. This is done by shredding the plastic into strips. Then, these strips are chopped into smaller pieces. This process also allows for removing any debris that you don’t want in the final recycled product e.g. paper, labels, dirt.
These small pieces of plastic are then cleaned to further remove any contaminants which could impede on the properties of the finished product.
These clean pieces of plastic are then melted using a special type of oven. A pelleting machine then takes this melted plastic and forms it into small, uniform plastic pellets. These pellets can then be sold to be used to make future plastic products.
So we know polythene isn’t all bad, but what are its advantages over other packaging materials such as paper and cardboard?
As discussed, polythene is completely recyclable. Plus, polythene can be recycled many times. Compare this to paper, which degrades and becomes weaker the more it is recycled. Plastic doesn’t have this problem.
Although paper has a range of environmentally friendly qualities, it’s important to remember it is not entirely environmentally friendly.
The manufacture of paper requires a large amount of energy. This is due to the long and arduous process. Below is a (very simplified) overview of this process:
Making paper from recycled material uses far less energy of course, but even this uses a large amount of energy during the manufacture and drying process.
Additionally, the weight of paper required to contain and protect an item is relatively high compared to the weight of plastic required to offer the same protection. This increases the transport costs due to increased fuel consumption and more space used up.
Essentially, all solutions consume vast resources and there is a trade off to be made. Polythene can continue to serve a vital purpose of wrapping and packaging items, whilst still being an environmentally viable option.
Industrial Polythene are committed to doing our part to protect the environment, and we recommend following the “reduce, reuse, recycle” principles.
We are doing our part to help companies and the industry reduce the amount of plastic used, with the top four methods being:
Examples of the above include IP Performance (IPP), a lightweight, high performance co-extruded film. This film is engineered from a unique blend of polymer, with additives to make the film very high strength. This increased strength means that less film is required to carry out the same job, and less film goes to waste through torn or broken material.
We also have IPPlant, a bio based material made from sugarcane which still offers a strong top-quality product. This use of plant-based materials means less oils and virgin material is used.
Industrial Polythene also offers a number of products that can be reused for longer than other products on the market, such as our heavy duty aggregate sacks.
This reusability ensures new products aren’t created, further reducing consumption of raw materials.
Industrial Polythene are also passionate about recycling, hence why we stress the amazing recyclable properties of polythene. We think that the infrastructure in the UK should be improved and encourage other recycling schemes to make use of polythene’s recyclability.
Schemes such as the increased recycling at Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Co-op. These schemes help to reduce the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills and increase the lifespan of polythene products. If looking to recycle larger volumes of plastic, search for commercial plastic recycling services local to you - many will collect large volumes of plastic from business and organisations.
We also use Post-Consumer Waste (PCW) polythene. This is polythene that is made of plastic that has served its intended purpose, and has been recycled into polythene. This reduces the consumption of fossil fuels which are used to produce virgin grade polythene. It also reduces the amount of packaging waste sent to landfills, which fills the oceans and pollutes the environment.
Industrial Polythene offers a range of more environmentally friendly products. Explore our greener packaging solutions and find the perfect packaging for your organisation.
Find out more about single-use plastic’s impact on our environment from the UN Environment Programme.