With an increasing focus on sustainability and the environment, many businesses and consumers are now looking for packaging that is recyclable, biodegradable or compostable.
However, there is often confusion surrounding recycling terms, not to mention what can and can’t be recycled.
Read our glossary of terms and see our useful links to understand more about recycling and biodegradable plastics.
Recycling glossary for businesses and consumers
Recycling is the process of turning used items into useful materials or new products.
If the material can be processed and made into something else, then it is recyclable. If a recycled product originally came from a non-renewable source, such as oil, then that can only be a good thing.
It takes significantly less energy to make a product from recycled plastic than from virgin film. For example, it takes 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle from recycled plastic than from virgin materials.
There is a good infrastructure in place in the UK for recycling different types of materials, either through kerbside collections or at local recycling centres.
When something is biodegradable, it means it can be broken down naturally by microorganisms such as bacteria or funghi, under certain conditions.
Some biodegradable plastics are made from the traditional petrochemical process and include additives to make them break down more quickly in the presence of light, oxygen, heat or moisture. Others are made from sustainable plant materials, such as corn starch or wood pulp.
Biodegradable plastics made from petrochemicals can take a long time to degrade in landfill as they are often buried, leaving them without the light and oxygen they need to break down. Biodegradable plastics are not easy to recycle, so they shouldn’t be mixed with non-biodegradable plastic in the recycling chain.
Compostable plastics, or bioplastics as they are also known, are biodegradable as they are made from plant materials. When they break down, they release their nutrients back into the soil, leaving nothing harmful behind. It is therefore possible to compost them.
Some bioplastics will break down very quickly, some in as little as a few weeks. However, as they are biodegradable, they are difficult to recycle. In addition, not all bioplastics can be composted in a home environment as some require very high temperatures, specific humidity or the presence of certain bacteria or fungi, which can only be controlled in industrial composting plants.
Similarly, they can take a long time to degrade in landfill as they won’t have the right conditions. Look out for the Home Compostable symbol, which shows the film has been certified for home composting.
Many of our cartons and paper bags are sourced from certified sustainable sources, so you can buy forest products knowing that you are helping to ensure our forests are alive for generations to come.
Primary packaging – Primary packaging is the first level of packaging in which a product is sold. It’s the packaging that consumers will take home and dispose of themselves, either as general waste or by recycling e.g. a wrapper around a packet of biscuits.
Secondary packaging – This is the packaging that doesn’t reach the consumer e.g. the cardboard box in which the wrapped biscuits are shipped to the retail store.
Energy recovery from waste (EfW)- This is the incineration of rubbish to produce heat energy, which is then used to generate electricity or to heat homes.
Any company with a UK turnover in excess of £2 million per year, that handles more than 50 tonnes of packaging per year or that performs a relevant activity on any packaging handled (this could be a raw material manufacturer, converter, packer/filler, seller or importer), will be affected by these regulations. Discover more about the regulations from Valpak.
Recycling symbols explained
Plastic recycling codes appear on lots of plastic packaging. They identify the type of plastic used to make the item by providing a ‘Resin Identification Code’. You will see a ‘chasing arrows’ symbol surrounding a number between one and seven. This defines the resin used and allows you to make the right recycling choice.
For more information watch Recycle Now’s video below – Understanding Recycling Labels.
On-pack recycling labels (OPRL)
Used by over 400 retailers, brands and packaging businesses, the OPRL scheme aims to make it easier for consumers to understand which packaging can be recycled, and how.
This simple, UK-wide, consistent recycling message is based on current local authority recycling services and reflects what can be recycled and where. It is hoped that this will allow more consumers to recycle more and recycle correctly.
With a firm focus on simple, clear messaging, the labels provide straight-forward recycling information for each part of a product’s packaging and each material used.
However, because not all local authorities collect the same materials, it’s important to keep in mind that labels are based on what the majority collect.
If in doubt, you can enter your postcode into Recycle Now’s Recycling Locator to find out where you can recycle specific items locally.
Business recycling questions and answers
Which plastics can be recycled?
Find out about recycling different types of plastic from the British Plastics Federation.
How can I recycle waste packaging from my business?
Specialist companies make it their business to dispose of your waste responsibly – see an example here.
What will it cost for my business recycling?
The cost of a specialist recycling and waste service will depend upon various factors, including the amount of waste, the materials to be recycled and where you’re located.
Consumer recycling questions and answers
How do I find out what I can recycle?
Different local councils collect different materials for recycling and not all materials can be recycled everywhere.
See postcode specific information about what you can recycle at home and how with Recycle Now.
Why can’t some things be recycled?
It isn’t possible to recycle every type of waste. For example, some types of waste are too contaminated to recycle. Manufacturers are, however, now encouraged to make as much of their products and packaging as possible using recyclable and reusable materials.
How do I prepare my materials to be recycled?
Before recycling certain materials and packaging, you should ensure they are as clean as possible and remove any non-recyclable elements such as cling film from plastic tubs or pumps from cleaning products. Find out more about reducing contamination here.
What if I want to recycle something that can’t be taken by my local kerbside collection?
Find out where your nearest recycling centre is depending on the item(s) you’d like to recycle using the Recycle Now free tool.
Can all paper be recycled?
No, it can’t – read about which paper can and can’t be recycled here.
How is plastic recycled?
If you’ve ever wondered how household plastic is recycled, watch Recycle Now’s video below.
Can I recycle glass?
The majority of glass can be recycled. If you take your glass to a bottle bank, make sure you separate the glass by colour and remove any non-glass parts, such as bottle tops or lids.