For businesses dealing with large volumes of plastic waste, understanding what plastics can be recycled is crucial for efficient operations and environmental responsibility. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the types of plastics that can and cannot be recycled, how plastic is recycled, and how to best prepare your plastic waste for recycling – enabling you to make informed decisions about managing your waste effectively.


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Understanding Plastic Types

Identifying what plastics can be recycled starts with understanding plastic identification codes, known as Resin Identification Codes (RIC). These codes, numbered from 1 to 7, are typically found on plastic products and indicate the type of plastic and its recyclability. These plastic types are commonly found in our kitchens and everyday workplaces, making it essential to recognise and sort them correctly for effective recycling.

Resin Identification Codes (RIC)

  1. PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): Commonly found in water bottles and food containers, this plastic typically has a shiny finish and is very visually appealing. Its widespread use in consumer products makes it one of the most recognisable and recyclable plastics.
  2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene): Commonly used in shampoo bottles and milk bottles, this plastic makes containers that are very easy to squeeze. Its durability and flexibility make it ideal for a variety of packaging applications.
  3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): Used in pipes and vinyl flooring, PVC is a durable plastic known for its strength and resistance to environmental degradation. It is also found in medical equipment, cable insulation, and window frames. 
  4. LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene): Present in grocery bags and plastic wrap, LDPE is also widely used throughout the world as pallet wrap in warehouses. 
  5. PP (Polypropylene): Found in yoghurt containers and bottle caps, PP is typically used in the food industry. This versatile plastic is known for its high melting point and resistance to chemicals, making it ideal for packaging food products and other consumables.
  6. PS (Polystyrene): Used in disposable coffee cups, packaging of fresh produce, and also widely used in the packaging of electrical goods, such as protective casings for televisions and computers. This plastic is lightweight and provides excellent cushioning and insulation.
  7. Other (Various Plastics): Includes mixed plastics not classified under the other six categories.

Importance of Plastic Identification Codes

Different types of plastics require different recycling methods. For example, PET and HDPE are easier to recycle, whereas PVC and PS present more challenges due to their chemical compositions. Recognising these codes helps businesses sort plastics correctly, ensuring they are processed efficiently and effectively. 

However, limitations exist as some plastics are not recyclable in conventional facilities, highlighting the need for specialised recycling programmes for certain materials.


What Plastics Can Be Recycled?

Here we’ll provide a breakdown of exactly what plastics can be recycled, their common uses and recycling processes. 

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) – Code 1

Common Uses: Water bottles, soda bottles, food containers.

Recycling Process and Benefits

Recycling PET involves several crucial steps to convert it into new, useful products. The process begins with the collection of PET items, which are then sorted to ensure only PET plastics are processed together. This sorting step is vital to maintain the purity of the recycled material.

Once sorted, the PET plastics are thoroughly cleaned to remove any contaminants such as food residues, labels, and adhesives. This cleaning process ensures that the recycled PET is of high quality. After cleaning, the PET is shredded into small flakes, which are then melted down and reformed into pellets. These pellets are used as raw materials for manufacturing new products, such as fibres for clothing, carpets, and even new PET bottles.

Due to the high recyclability of PET plastic, there is substantial capacity within recycling processes internationally to handle this product. Consequently, PET tends to fetch a lower value per tonne globally compared to other types of plastics.

HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) – Code 2

Common Uses: Milk bottles, detergent bottles, juice bottles.

Recycling Process and Benefits

The recycling process begins with the collection of HDPE items, which are then sorted to separate them from other types of plastics. Sorting is essential to maintain the purity of the HDPE material.

Once sorted, the HDPE is shredded into small pieces. These pieces are washed to remove contaminants, such as labels and residues, ensuring that the recycled material is clean and ready for processing. The clean HDPE flakes are then melted down and reformed into pellets. These pellets serve as raw material for manufacturing new products.

HDPE is commonly recycled into products such as plastic planks, piping, and containers. This recycling process not only creates valuable new products but also helps to reduce the demand for virgin plastic. By recycling HDPE, businesses can significantly lower their environmental impact, conserving resources and reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of new plastic. 

Additionally, HDPE has a very good value per tonne when recycled, provided that the product has been sorted efficiently. This high value makes HDPE an attractive material for recycling, contributing to both economic and environmental benefits.

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) – Code 3

Common Uses: Pipes, vinyl flooring, window frames.

Recycling Challenges and Special Considerations

Recycling PVC is challenging due to its complex chemical composition, which includes additives like plasticisers, stabilisers, and fillers. These additives can release harmful chemicals during the recycling process, making it more difficult to handle compared to other plastics. Furthermore, PVC’s chlorine content poses a risk of hazardous emissions when heated.

Due to these challenges, PVC recycling is less common and often requires specialised programmes or technologies. Some facilities can handle PVC through mechanical recycling, where the material is ground into small pieces and remodelled into new products. However, this process is not widespread. Innovations like feedstock recycling, which breaks down PVC into its chemical components, offer potential but are still under development.

Manufacturers of PVC have a strong influence over the recycling of these products and often set up their own recycling schemes to enable efficient and practical recycling of this material. These schemes help manage the complexities associated with PVC recycling and ensure that the products are processed safely and effectively.

LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) – Code 4

Common Uses: LDPE is widely used due to its flexibility and durability. In addition to grocery bags and bread bags, LDPE is commonly found in distribution environments as pallet wraps, shrink films, and protective packaging materials. Its resilience and ability to withstand stretching without breaking make it ideal for securing and protecting goods during transportation and storage.

Recycling Process and Benefits

Recycling LDPE involves several steps to ensure the material is effectively transformed into new products. First, LDPE items are collected from various sources. The collected plastics are then cleaned thoroughly to remove any contaminants, such as food residues or other materials, which can interfere with the recycling process. After cleaning, the LDPE is sorted and prepared for processing.

The recycling process typically involves shredding the LDPE into small flakes, which are then melted and reformed into pellets. These pellets are then utilised for producing new items. LDPE can be recycled into items like garbage bags, floor tiles, and shipping envelopes. This recycling process not only reduces the amount of plastic waste sent to landfills but also conserves resources by reducing the need for virgin plastic production.

Moreover, research has indicated that LDPE is biodegradable, though this process can take a considerable amount of time and specific environmental conditions.This aspect further enhances the environmental benefits of recycling LDPE, as it adds to the sustainability of managing plastic waste.

Reducing contamination in the recycling stream is crucial for effective LDPE recycling. Contaminants can cause defects in the recycled products and lower their quality. Businesses can play a significant role in ensuring the success of LDPE recycling by properly sorting and cleaning their plastic waste before it is collected for recycling. 

Provided that the product has been sorted efficiently,  LDPE has very good value per tonne when recycled. Proper sorting and cleaning ensure that the recycled LDPE maintains high quality and fetches good market prices, making it a valuable material in the recycling industry.

PP (Polypropylene) – Code 5

Common Uses: Yogurt containers, bottle caps, straws.

Recycling Process and Benefits

Recycling polypropylene (PP) involves several key steps to transform it into new products. First, PP items are collected and sorted from other types of plastics. The sorting process is crucial to ensure the purity of the recycled material. Once sorted, the PP is washed thoroughly to remove any contaminants, such as food residues or labels, which could affect the quality of the recycled plastic.

After cleaning, the PP is shredded into small flakes, which are then melted and reformed into pellets. These pellets serve as the raw material for manufacturing new products, such as automotive parts, reusable containers, and textiles. The recycling process not only helps in creating new, useful products but also significantly reduces the demand for virgin plastic.

The environmental benefits of recycling PP are substantial. By reusing existing plastic materials, businesses can lower their carbon footprint and reduce the consumption of non-renewable resources like oil. Additionally, recycling PP helps to divert plastic waste from landfills, contributing to a cleaner and more sustainable environment.

PP is highly recyclable and has good market value, making it an attractive material for recycling programmes. For businesses, participating in PP recycling programmes can also be cost-effective. Using recycled PP can be cheaper than producing new plastic, leading to potential savings in manufacturing costs. 

PS (Polystyrene) – Code 6

Common Uses: Disposable coffee cups, plastic food boxes, packaging peanuts.

Recycling Challenges and Special Considerations

Recycling polystyrene (PS) presents significant challenges due to its physical properties. PS is a low-density material, meaning it is light and voluminous, which complicates collection and transportation. Additionally, PS tends to break into small pieces easily, further complicating the recycling process.

Specialised recycling programmes and innovations are necessary to handle PS effectively. Some facilities use polystyrene compactors to reduce its volume, making it easier to transport and process. At Greenbank, we offer a range of specialised polystyrene compactors to streamline your recycling process, making it more efficient and cost effective.  With the correct equipment, such as our SC1200, SC2300, and SC3100 compactors, PS becomes easily recyclable, turning a challenging material into a manageable and valuable resource.

Advanced methods, such as chemical recycling, can also break down PS into its original components for reuse. However, these specialised programmes are not widely available, limiting the overall recyclability of PS.For more information on handling waste polystyrene, read our article on What to Do With Waste Polystyrene.


What Plastics Can’t Be Recycled?

Other (Various Plastics) – Code 7

Code 7 plastics include a variety of plastic types that do not fit into the categories defined by codes 1 through 6. This category includes mixed plastics and newer materials like biodegradable plastics, which can be challenging to process in traditional recycling facilities.

Why Code 7 Plastics Are Not Recyclable

Code 7 plastics are heterogeneous, meaning they consist of various plastic types mixed together, making it difficult to separate and recycle them effectively. Additionally, many recycling facilities lack the infrastructure needed to handle these diverse materials, which often require specialised recycling methods. There is also uncertainty surrounding certain types of plastics within this category, such as RPET (Recycled PET) and meat tray plastics, which complicates the recycling process further due to their mixed material composition.

Common Uses and Disposal Alternatives

Products made from Code 7 plastics include certain food containers, sunglasses, DVDs, and biodegradable plastics. Due to the difficulty in recycling these materials, alternatives such as returning them to manufacturers, utilising specialised recycling services, or finding creative reuse options can be explored. For instance, some companies – following the 5 Rs of waste management – offer take-back programmes for their products, ensuring they are disposed of properly.


How to Prepare Plastic for Recycling

Now that we’ve identified which plastics can and can’t be recycled, it’s crucial to understand how to prepare these materials properly. Effective preparation ensures that your plastic waste is processed efficiently and contributes to a successful recycling programme. 

This section will guide you through the essential steps of sorting, cleaning, baling, and storing plastic waste for recycling.

Initial Sorting and Cleaning

Each type of plastic has unique properties and recycling requirements, so proper sorting ensures that the recycling process is efficient and effective. Begin by identifying and separating plastics according to their Resin Identification Codes (RIC) – the numbers from 1 to 7 usually found on the bottom of plastic products. Thorough cleaning is equally important. Plastics should be free from food residues, labels, and other contaminants, as these can interfere with the recycling process and reduce the quality of the recycled material.

Using a Plastic Baler

Once plastics are sorted and cleaned, businesses can use a plastic baler to compact these materials into dense, manageable bales. A plastic baler not only helps in organising waste but also significantly reduces the volume, making storage and transportation more efficient and cost-effective. By compressing plastics into tight bales, you save valuable space and lower the frequency and cost of waste disposal. Additionally, plastic bales can be sold to recycling facilities, generating additional income and helping to offset waste management costs.

Greenbank offers a range of plastic balers suitable for different business needs. Whether you handle soft plastics like shrink wrap and bags, or harder plastics like PET bottles, our balers ensure that your recycling process is streamlined and efficient.

Investing in a plastic baler from Greenbank can transform your waste management strategy, making it more sustainable and economically viable. Explore our range of plastic balers today to find the perfect solution for your business.

Labelling and Storing Bales

Proper labelling and storage of plastic bales is essential to maintain the integrity of the sorted materials and prevent contamination. Each bale should be clearly labelled with the type of plastic it contains, using the corresponding Resin Identification Code. This helps recycling facilities process the materials correctly. 

Additionally, bales should be stored in a clean, dry area to avoid exposure to elements that could compromise the quality of the plastics. Keeping bales organised and accessible ensures a smooth transition from collection to recycling, enhancing the overall efficiency of your waste management processes.


Partner with Greenbank for Efficient Plastic Recycling

By partnering with reputable waste management experts, like Greenbank, you can benefit from tailored solutions that meet your specific business needs, helping you optimise your recycling processes and achieve your sustainability goals.

At Greenbank, we provide comprehensive support, including supplying appropriate recycling equipment, regular waste audits, and guidance on best practices for plastic recycling. Collaborating with us not only enhances your operational efficiency but also ensures compliance with environmental regulations and reduces the environmental impact of your business.

Our free waste audit helps you identify opportunities for improvement in your current waste management strategy. Our experts will work closely with you to assess your current practices, recommend suitable equipment like plastic balers, and develop a customised recycling strategy to maximise efficiency and sustainability.

Take the first step towards more efficient and responsible waste management by scheduling a free waste management audit with Greenbank today.


Final Thoughts

Recycling plastics correctly is essential for both environmental sustainability and efficient waste management. By understanding the different types of plastics, how to identify and sort them, and the importance of proper cleaning, businesses can significantly improve their recycling efforts. Utilising plastic balers can further streamline the process, making storage and transportation more manageable while also generating additional income.

Contact Greenbank today to learn more about our waste management services and how we can assist you in achieving a more efficient and responsible approach to recycling.


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