Plastics Recycling

Nearly all types of plastics can be recycled, however the extent to which they are recycled depends upon technical, economic and logistic factors. As a valuable and finite resource, the optimum recovery route for most plastic items at the ‘end-of-life’ is to be recycled, preferably back into a product that can then be recycled again and again and so on. Plastic arisings in the UK are 3.7 million tonnes [1] of which 29% [2] is recycled and 59% [2] recovered.


1. Introduction

2. Waste Hierarchy

3. Post Consumer Recycling
3.1 Plastic Packaging Recycling
3.2 Films
3.3 WEEE
3.3 ELV

4. Recycling of Manufacturing Waste

5. Biodegradable and degradable plastics

6. Identifying Plastics: Marking Systems for Plastic Products

7. Current Examples of Plastics Related Schemes in the UK

8. Legislation, Standards and Related Publications

9. Useful Links

plastics recycling

This page aims to give an insight into the current market situation of plastics recycling in the UK and provides a snapshot of the different areas of activity with supporting information to illustrate the points raised. Wherever possible relevant links to other websites have been included so that the more interested reader can expand on the information given. Visit the plastic packaging recycling page to learn more about plastic packaging recycling.

1. Introduction

The UK has a plastic packaging recycling target of 57% by 2020. The BPF and Plastics Europe with the support of WRAP are implementing the Plastics Industry Recycing Action Plan (PIRAP) to help meet this target.

Nearly all UK councils now offer householders some form of plastics recycling as part of the local authority waste collection system and this is generating increasing annual tonnages of post-consumer plastics packaging waste as the input raw material to the recycling sector. Across the construction, manufacturing and retail sectors the importance of capturing potentially valuable streams of waste plastics and channelling them into efficient recycling and recovery processing routes is now recognised as a key way to save costs and reduce environmental impacts of organisations.

In the past few years the UK has seen rapid growth in the volumes of plastics collected and separated for recycling across both the public and private sector. These newly available tonnages of waste plastics present the industry with the challegne of how best to convert a waste resource into valuable new material and products.

Source of data: WRAP 2016 Plastic Market Situation Report

There are many benefits to be gained by the responsible recycling of plastics;

  • Provides a sustainable source of raw materials to industry
  • Greatly reduces the environmental impact of plastic-rich products
  • Minimises the amount of plastic being sent to the UK’s diminishing landfill sites
  • Avoids the consumption of the Earth’s oil stocks
  • Consumes less energy than producing new, virgin polymers
  • Encourages a sustainable lifestyle among children and young-adults
Source of data: Axionpolymers 2017

Axpoly® Carbon Footprint Analysis

BPF Member, Axion Polymers', have done an analysis of their carbon footprint. This found that substituting 1 tonne of virgin PP for tonne of Axpoly® rPP would save nearly 1200 kg CO2, which is the equivalent to transporting the material from London to Milan in a stand lorry. Although this data is specific to Axion Polymers' process other method are likely to show similar benefits.

The graph to the left shows the savings for other material recycled by Axion.

2. Waste hierarchy

The waste framework directive sets out that waste should be dealt with inaccordance with the waste hierarchy with legislation aiming to move waste management up the waste hierarchy. The recycling of plastics fits into the Waste Hierarchy as an efficient and sustainable use of material resources.

Waste Hierarchy

Prevention – Reducing resource use in manufacture, ensuring products last for a long time and using less hazardous material

Preparing for reuse – Repairing, cleaning, refurbishing and checking

Other recovery – incarnation with energy recovery, anaerobic digestion, gasification and pyroloysis which product energy (fuel, heat and power)

Disposal – Landfill and incineration without energy recovery

Plastic can have multiple uses but once it needs to be disposed of recycling fits into the hierarchy as an efficient and sustainable use of material resources.

3. Post Consumer Recycling

3.1 Plastic Packaging Recycling

99% of local authorities are now collecting plastic bottles at the kerbside and 76% collect pots, tubs and trays [3]. This is enabling increasing annual tonnages of post-consumer plastic packaging waste to be collected and provides an input raw material into the recycling sector. The graph below shows how the quantity of plastic packaging has increased since 1994 to 512,475 tonnes in 2016 [3]. This gives a 58% plastic packaging collection rate for plastic bottles and 32% for pots, tubs and trays [3].

Both PET and HDPE milk container provide examples of ‘closed-loop’ recycling as they can be recycled into food grade material. However, there are other end markets for plastic packaging allowing it to go into long-term applications such as plastic pipes.

Source: Recoup's UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2017

3.2 Films

Recycling of post commercial, industrial and agricultural films is well established in the UK. However, collection of post-consumer film is still developing with only 19% [3] of local authorities collecting it kerbside and it is currently not included as part of WRAP’s consistency programme. However, as demand for used plastic films continues to grow on the world trading market, there is greater pressure for UK recyclers to invest in new technology enabling the more mixed, printed and dirty films from household sources to recovered and recycled.

For information on WRAP’s post-consumer film trial please click here.

Plastic arisings for film in 2016 were estimated at 762,000 with 414,000 tonnes from consumers and 348,000 tonnes from non-consumer [1].

Products made from recycled films include refuse sacks, damp-proof membranes, fencing (garden, furniture etc).

3.3 Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

Every year an estimated 2 million tonnes of WEEE items are discarded by householders and companies in the UK [4]. The items include anything which has a plug or battery.

Under the WEEE directive companies who sell to household consumer must offer take back scheme or join a distributor take back scheme (DTS) and make a financial contribution to helping set up WEEE collection facilities throughout the UK. This has led to an increase in plastics recycled from WEEE.

DEFRA have set a collection target for WEEE of 622,033 tonnes for 2017. In 2016 581,415 tonnes of WEEE was collected [5].

Plastic from WEEE can be used for a whole range of products including new electrical good and stationary.

3.4 End of Life Vehicles (ELV)

1.6 to 2 million vehicles reach the end of their life in the UK each year [6].

Under the End of Life Vehicles Directive by 2015 all member states needed to have a reuse and recovery rate of 95% and a reuse and recycling rate of 85%. Most vehicles are taken to shredders for separation of the materials which includes plastics. In 2014 86.9% of end of life vehicles were reused or recycled and 97.7% were reused or recovered [7].

Plastics from End of Life Vehicles can be recycled back into component part of vehicles or a whole range of other applications such as flower pots.

4.Recycling of Manufacturing Waste

plastics belt

Across the construction, manufacturing, automotive and retail sectors the importance of capturing potentially valuable streams of waste plastics and channelling them into efficient recycling and recovery processing routes is recognised.

The manufacturing industry has focused on minimising production waste and increasing their resource efficiently. This has led to a decrease in the plastic waste created as off-cuts or surplus scrap as well as larger manufacturing sites operating their own onsite recycling facilities.

336,000 tonnes of rigid plastic arose in C&I in 2014 with 140,000 tonnes being recycled at 41% [8]. 726,000 tonnes of non-consumer packaging placed on the market with a recycling rate of 34% in 2013 [9].

5.Biodegradable and degradable plastics

Degradability is another area of growing importance in waste-management terms. Degradable plastics including biodegradable plastics are commercially available and are used in the packaging for example of fruits and vegetables. Solutions to the litter problem will not be found in the increased use of one material such as degradable plastics, over another. The problem is caused by the behaviour of people and not plastics products.

The impact of degradable materials on the recycling of conventional plastics is a concern for recyclers. Even a perceived risk of recycled material containing biodegradable /degradable material can prevent its use especially in long tern applications.

6.Identifying Plastics

There is no mandatory need to mark plastics however, as an aid to recycling; the BPF recommends that larger parts and packaging should be marked with an appropriate identification code. To identify plastics packaging materials, the BPF recommends the use of a coding system devised by the American Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). In brief;

polyethylene terephthalate PET polyethylene terephthalate Water bottles, soft and fizzy drink bottles, pots, tubs, oven ready trays, jam jars
high-density polyethylene HDPE high-density polyethylene Chemical drums, jerricans, carboys, toys, picnic ware, household and kitchenware, cable insulation, carrier bags, food wrapping material.
polyvinyl chloride PVC polyvinyl chloride Window frames, drainage pipe, water service pipe, medical devices, blood storage bags, cable and wire insulation, resilient flooring, roofing membranes, stationery, automotive interiors and seat coverings, fashion and footwear, packaging, cling film, credit cards, synthetic leather and other coated fabrics.
low density polyethylene LDPE low density polyethylene Squeeze bottles, toys, carrier bags, high frequency insulation, chemical tank linings, heavy duty sacks, general packaging, gas and water pipes.
polypropylene PP polypropylene Polypropylene can be processed by virtually all thermoplastic-processing methods. Most typically PP Products are manufactured by: Extrusion Blow Moulding, Injection Moulding, and General Purpose Extrusion. Expanded Polypropylene (EPP) may be moulded in a specialist process.
polystyrene PS polystyrene Toys and novelties, rigid packaging, refrigerator trays and boxes, cosmetic packs and costume jewellery, lighting diffusers, audio cassette and CD cases.
other types of plastics Other other types of plastics

Moulded plastics items should be marked in accordance with ISO 11469 where practicable.

For more information on the correct symbols to use for the main polymer types, click here

The On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) provides information to consumers on if a plastic product can be recycled. Retailers and brand owners are encouraged to use this help communicate with the public on what can and cannot be recycled.

5.Current examples of plastics recycling schemes in the UK


One industry led scheme to improve a particular waste sector is Recovinyl. Recovinyl provides financial incentives to support the collection of PVC waste from sectors not covered by the ELV Directive. This European scheme, backed by the British Plastics Federation, aims to ensure a steady supply of post-consumer PVC waste for recycling.


Following the highly successful trial 'Recycle Your Vinyl Flooring’, flooring manufacturers Altro and Polyflor have launched a new vinyl flooring take-back scheme: Recofloor. Waste vinyl flooring collected under the scheme will be recycled and diverted from landfill. Axion Consulting has been appointed agent for the new scheme.

Vinyl Plus
vinyl plus The VinylPlus programme is built around five commitments aimed at: achieving a quantum leap in recycling rates of PVC and the development of innovative recycling technologies; addressing concerns about organochlorine emissions; ensuring the sustainable use of additives; enhancing energy efficiency and the use or renewable energy and raw materials in PVC production, and; promoting sustainability throughout the whole PVC value chain.


Recomed is PVC take-back scheme provides recycling containers, communications and collections for hospital registered to the service. This programme is run by Axion Consulting and the British Plastics Federation.
  • Waste Framework Directive: This Directive provides the overarching legislative framework for the collection, transport, recovery and disposal of waste, and includes a common definition of waste and recycling.
  • Waste Management Plan for England
  • Circular Economy Package
  • Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE and RoHS Directives)
  • End-of-Life Vehicles
  • Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulations
  • The Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 103 enables plastics waste to be classified according to its polymer type, its original use and any contaminants. Plastics recycling companies will be able to set purchasing specifications based on this PAS and collectors, sorters and traders of plastics waste will be able to maximise the value of their material by understanding the precise needs of the recycling industry. PAS 103 was sponsored by DTI, Biffaward, WRAP, EMR and Fujitsu Services.
  • Recycled Plastic in Food Contact Applications: European Commission Regulation No (EC) 282/2008 on recycled materials and articles intended to come into contact with foods and amending Regulation (EC) No. 2023/2006 entered into force on 24th April 2008 and is directly applicable throughout the EU. The new regulation sets out the requirements for recycled plastics to be used in food contact materials and establishes an authorisation procedure of recycling processes used in the manufacture of recycled plastics for food contact use. It establishes requirements as regards the materials that can be recycled and the efficiency of recycling process to reduce contamination. The regulation aims to create a more efficient and practical system for regulating the use of recycled plastics in food packaging.

    Any company wishing to use recycled plastics in food contact applications will need to gain approval from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), which will base its safety assessment on factors such as the quality of the recycled raw material, the efficiency of the decontamination process and the plastic's intended use. Once EFSA has evaluated a particular case, its verdict will be forwarded to the EC. If the EC authorises the case, it will then be added to the register of approved recycling processes.

    Guidelines for applicants for the safety evaluation of recycled plastics to be used in contact with food have been published by EFSA, CLICK HERE for further information.

bpf recycling groupFor more information on sourcing plastics recyclers visit the 'Find a Recycler' section of the BPF Reycling Group Page.

The BPF Recycling Group is the representative body for UK plastic recyclers and is made up of around 40 UK based plastics recyclers.

1. WRAP, 2016 Plastics Market Situation Report Spring 2016
2. PlasticsEurope, 2016 Plastics the Facts 2016
3. Recoup, 2017 UK Household Plastics Collection Survey
4. Health and Safety Executive Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (WEEE) accessed 16.05.2017
5. Let's Recycle, 2017 DEFRA confirm WEEE targets for 2017 accessed 21.04.2017
6. Environment Agency, 2016 End of Life Vehicle (ELVs): guidance for waste sites accessed 21.04.2017
7. Eurostat, 2017 End-of-life vehicle statistics accessed 21.04.2017
8. WRAP Rigid Plastic Packaging in the Commerical and Industrial Sectors
9. WRAP, 2014 Plastic Packaging Market Study (Plastic Flow) 2014


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