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Can you recycle plastic food and drink packaging?

Food packaging has come a long way in recent years in terms of sustainability, but recent figures estimate that England uses 1.1 billion single-use plastic plates and 4.25 billion pieces of single-use plastic cutlery annually. 

Furthermore, there is concern about the actual outcome of items deposited for recycling - in 2017-2018, Westminster council sent 82% of all household waste, including recycling bin contents, for incineration. The UK produces more waste than it can dispose of, meaning that substantial volumes are sent abroad to be processed, but additional domestic measures are being taken to combat this.

From April 2022, the UK will see a plastic packaging tax, set at £200 per tonne, on any plastic packaging that falls under the 30% recycled content threshold. While this encourages the use of alternatives to single-use plastic, confusion remains for consumers on whether they can recycle plastic food packaging. Read our guide below to see which packaging is recyclable.

Plastic drink bottle recycling

Polyethylene terephthalate, more concisely known as PET, is the plastic used in the following types of food and drink packaging:

  • Plastic drink bottles
  • Yoghurt containers (unless there is polystyrene in them)
  • Salad dressing bottles
  • Vegetable oil bottles

This type of plastic can be recycled into polyester filling for fleeces and cushions, and is recyclable in 94% of UK councils. Make sure to check on your local council’s website for specific restrictions on recycling.

As a rule of thumb, the majority of plastic bottles are recyclable - as long as they are not black plastic. You shouldn’t collapse or squash the bottles, either.

Milk cartons and ice-cream tub recycling

Another common plastic used in food and drink packaging is high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which you will recognise as the plastic used in:

  • Milk cartons
  • Detergent bottles
  • Shampoo bottles
  • Margarine tubs
  • Ice cream tubs
  • Plastic bottle caps
  • Juice bottles

HDPE can be recycled, though it is best to check with your local authority. Food and drink packaging made from HDPE will have a recycling logo with a number two at its centre, with ‘HDPE’ written below.

Recycling cling film and fresh fruit packaging

Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is not typically collected for recycling by UK local authorities. This is because PVS is a thermoplastic, the creation of which involves an irreversible chemical bond. PVC can be found in:

  • Cling film
  • Blister packaging
  • Fresh fruit packaging (e.g. strawberries)

Recycling bags for frozen food and bread 

Low-density polyethylene, or LDPE, can be recycled in most areas, but as with all other plastic types, you should check with your local authority if they can recycle it. LDPE can be recognised as a hard yet flexible plastic.

If your local authority is able to recycle LDPE, the products it may accept for collection include:

  • Bread bags
  • Frozen food bags
  • Squeezable bottles (e.g. hand cream tubes)
  • Bubble wrap

Ketchup bottles and plastic straw recycling

PP, less commonly known as polypropylene, can be recycled - but this is not the case in all local authorities. PP food packaging can be found with the recycling logo and the number 5 at its centre, with PP labelled below. PP is typically seen in:

  • Plastic Straws
  • Condiment bottles
  • Plastic picnicware

It is also used in plastic bags and film that cannot be stretched, and in this case, it is not recyclable.

Recycling yoghurt pots and fast food boxes

Polystyrene is a common plastic used in food packaging in the UK, and is not typically recycled. There are two types of polystyrene, the first of which is hard and brittle, and used in plastic forks and yoghurt pots. The second type, expanded polystyrene, is lighter and has a foam-like texture. It is used in some fast-food boxes and meat trays. 

Plastic: the take-aways

The vast majority of plastic can be recycled, but local authorities differ in what they are able to process. To be sure that the item you put in your recycling bins will find a new life, check with your local authority for details on what they will accept. In some cases, if you are unable to recycle certain products by putting them into your recycling bin, you may still be able to recycle them at large supermarkets.

Most commonly, the plastic food packaging that you cannot recycle includes tubs, plastic film, trays, and black plastic. These should always go in your waste bin.

Seek eco-friendly food packaging alternatives

As it is difficult to know which food and drink packaging can be recycled, you should always look for alternatives. Food packaging can now be made from biodegradable and compostable materials, without compromising the integrity of the packaging, and with these you can be certain that they will not have the same negative environmental impact as single-use plastics. 

At W.F. Denny, you will find eco-friendly food packaging for all your needs; from windowed cake boxes to hot food packaging and ovenable trays, all of which are more sustainable than plastic alternatives. Visit our leading food packaging solutions here.

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