25 recycled 500ml water bottles can make a fleece jacket
Plastic-use is at an all-time high. But as more and more become planet aware, how many of us know just what happens when we chuck that plastic water bottle in the recycling bin?
What exactly happens next?
The average UK household bins an estimated 500 plastic bottle every single year, with many ending up in landfill. Plastic bottles are typically made up of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high-density polyethylene (HDPE) – both of which are biodegradable.
Not only does recycling these materials mean they can be reused as something else, but by safely and responsibly recycling, we will be conserving the non-renewable fossil fuels required to make from new.
Beyond throwing your used plastic water bottle in the recycling, how much thought do any of us give to what happens next? According to one refuse worker, the hard work begins once that bottle is picked up.
Refuse worker at West Sussex County Council, Daryl Dean, said "Many people have no idea just how much work goes into recycling just a single plastic bottle
“People bung stuff in the recycling, think their good deed is done, and forget about it,” he said. “But the reality is, it is a lengthy and laborious process which – if the recycling is not done correctly at the start point – sometimes can’t happen at all.
Separate bottle tops, from bottles, rinse them out, shake out the excess inside them.
“More knowledge needs to go into our recycling processes. We need more education about the process then perhaps people would realise how much work is going into making our world a better place.”
For example, many believe plastic milk containers and plastic water bottles are made from the same material, however although both are recyclable, these are made from different materials and will go into separate sorting areas.
Plastic water bottles are commonly made up from PET, while milk containers are typically made from HDPE.
The first step in the recycling process is collection and in the UK this is normally done by your refuse collectors on bin day.
Typically households have the one recycling bin, which everything goes in – easier for the consumer, but the fact remains that that it still needs to be sorted at some point.
So after collection, the recycling is whisked off to a local recycling depot, where the work really starts.
It is common practice for such facilities to have something called a Single Stream Recycling System, which means all materials collected together undergo a sorting process to separate different materials, into glass, paper and metals.
This sorting is normally done by machines but it can often also include a manual sorting process to try and eliminate as much contamination as possible.
And all plastics are not born equal – there are a variety of different types. All of the plastic has to be separated by type. That plastic bottle you chucked in your recycling bin most likely will go in with other plastics.
Plastic numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 can be recycled, while plastics 3, 6 and 7 cannot
Once separated, the bottles are cleaned and sorted by type and colour. After being placed in its designated area, your plastic bottle will then be ground up into chips or flakes, and the plastic then washed to get rid of any labels or remnants of the liquid it once held. It will be dried, melted, and formed into pellets which are then sold onto companies to make new products.
But despite this efficiency in the recycling process, often it has to be stopped before it is started due to an error in the recycling at source. Daryl continued: “People don’t realise the first step is often the most vital. If we don’t get rid of it in the correct way, it won’t be recycled.
Learning a little means you are doing your bit
“If paper is soaked by liquid that hasn’t been rinsed, sometimes it can’t be recycled. We really need people to be careful at home instead of just bunging everything in and thinking they’ve done their bit.
“Follow the instructions. Separate bottle tops, from bottles, rinse them out, shake out the excess inside them. This all reduces the work done in the ongoing chain and ensures we get the maximum level of recycling we can.”
Experts also say the public need to be better informed about what can be recycled. Daryl continues: “Not all plastics are made equal – some can be recycled, and some can’t. But it is an easy enough system to work out when you have learnt the basics.
“Recycling needn’t take up hours of your time. It needs to be easy, or people won’t do it. The sad fact is, many can just chuck stuff in the bin, get it out of their house and forget about it.
The everyday list of items which cannot be recycled can often surprise the everyday consumer
“But it is the overuse and lack of thought which has got the planet into the state it is in today. Learning a little means you are doing your bit.”
On most plastic containers, a small number reveals which type of plastic it is. The code is currently not required, but it is becoming more and more common. Plastic numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5 can be recycled, while plastics 3, 6 and 7 cannot.
And the everyday list of items which cannot be recycled can often surprise the everyday consumer. Coffee cups, non-paper gift wrap, straws, takeaway boxes, tissues and kitchen roll are just some of the items on the banned list.
Those that cannot include PVC and polystyrene and are on the prohibited list because they have been shown to contain toxins.
Done correctly, recycling that old water bottle, has many benefits. 25 recycled 500ml water bottles can make a fleece jacket or five two-litre bottles can be turned into 0.09 square metres of carpet.
The issue can sometimes be complicated by the inconsistency between some councils
How to know what to recycle?
“It is worth learning the best ways of recycling,” Daryl continues. “It makes all the difference in the world going forward. The issue can sometimes be complicated by the inconsistency between some councils. Every one makes their own rules and funding decisions on recycling collections.
“Some do not accept rinsed fruit containers, some do. Some have weekly collections, while others are bi-monthly. People can look into the specifics of recycling in their funding area, but ultimately, taking that extra bit of time to think about what you’re chucking in can make a world of difference.”