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When is plastic recycling possible? A quick guide

Cleanipedia’s ultimate guide to plastic recycling – learn about plastic recycling symbols, preparing your bottles and trays for the bin, and more!


By Cleanipedia Team

Box of recycling with plastic bottles and pots

Key steps

  1. Look out for numbers 1 and 2 on your packaging – they’ll tell you what plastic you’re dealing with, and whether it can be recycled. Find out more below!
  2. Make sure your plastic recycling is clean – this avoids attracting pests to your outdoor bins and means that your recycling won’t be rejected by the local collection services.
  3. If you're still unsure, have a look online for what sort of plastic recyling can and cannot be recycled (luckily, you're already in the right place!). 

Plastic recycling is one of those things we all know is important – most local authorities collect plastics for recycling along with household waste. But it’s difficult to know for sure that you’re doing as much as you can when it comes to plastic recycling. Most of us know how to recycle plastic bottles, but what about yoghurt pots? Food packaging? Is the plastic bag your carrots came in suitable for the recycling? This article will go through some common symbols for recycling plastic, what plastics can and cannot usually be recycled, and how to prepare your plastics for collection.

Contribute to plastic recycling outside your household by supporting initiatives committed to sustainable production and reducing waste. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan is a great example of a brand committing to decreasing its environmental impact!

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How to recycle plastics: know your materials

Wouldn’t it be nice if all packaging came with a clear label on it that said how it could be recycled and where? Well, there is a system of formal plastic recycling symbols in place that you might find on packaging. It normally looks like three curved arrows that form the shape of a blunt-edged triangle, with a number in the middle.

Here are two numbers in particular to look out for:

  • A number 1 in the middle of the symbol signifies PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, which is a kind of plastic widely used in things like drink bottles and plastic tubs and pots, and is almost always recyclable.
  • A number 2 in the middle of the symbol means you’re dealing with high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, which goes into a lot of other plastic packaging and is also widely recycled (although not always).

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re looking at something suitable for plastic recycling, look out for one of these two symbols – they usually mean you can recycle the packaging, either at home or at a local collection centre. You can also find a detailed breakdown of all the plastic recycling symbols here.

How to recycle plastic bottles and packaging – preparing your plastic recycling

It’s a good idea to make sure your recycling is clean, especially if you’re putting out food and drink packaging for recycling. There are a couple of reasons for this – a practical one for you is that most recycling containers don’t have a lid, and if your plastic recycling has food scraps still clinging to it you could attract pests to your bins.

There are other reasons too, though – many automatic recycling plants sort through containers by weight, and will reject containers that still have food or liquid inside them as being too heavy. The machinery used in recycling plants could also be damaged or clogged by food or liquid, so it’s best to keep your recycling as clean as possible. Rinse out your packaging with warm water and, if necessary, a few drops of dishwashing liquid, and you should be good to go!


Different areas of the UK have different approaches to waste collection – some boroughs recycle more plastics than others. This article will provide a general plastic recycling guide, but for more specific information relating to where you live, contact your local authority.

What plastics can be recycled?

Unfortunately, manufacturers are not required to put identifying symbols on their packaging, so while looking out for them is a good idea, it’s not a fool-proof strategy. Many supermarkets provide labelling of their own that tells you whether you’ll be able to recycle their packaging or not, which is handy, but still not universal. So here’s a quick breakdown of the kinds of household plastics you might encounter and what to do with them:

  1. Bottles – Recycling plastic bottles is actually pretty straightforward – most of the plastic bottles you have around your home can be recycled. That includes clear and coloured plastic drinks bottles, detergent bottles, milk bottles, shower and shampoo bottles and other kinds of household bottles. Just make sure that you remove the pumps from liquid soap bottles and dispose of these separately, and don’t recycle any bottles that have been used for harsh chemicals like antifreeze – check with your local recycling plant about the best way to dispose of these.
  2. Trays, tubs and jars – The good news is that most of these can be recycled, too! Takeaway food trays, yoghurt pots, biscuit tubs and plant pots are all examples of things that can be recycled. Just make sure that you remove things like sponge inserts from raw meat trays, and give anything that’s come into contact with food a rinse.
  3. Bags – While we don’t use plastic carrier bags as much as we used to – canvas bags and reinforced Bags For Life are the way to go these days – they do still crop up. Some boroughs do collect carrier bags with the plastic recycling, but many don’t. The good news is that you can recycle carrier bags at most supermarkets these days, so why not pop into your local supermarket and ask if they’ll take yours?
  4. Film – This is a tricky one, because film is used in so many different types of packaging, from the airtight seals on some food packet lids, to clingfilm and the bags bread and vegetables come in. There are different rules for recycling each of them but general speaking bags and wrappers that resemble plastic bags can be recycled with your carrier bags at supermarkets. This includes bread and veg bags, freezer bags, and the plastic wrappers on toilet roll and paper towel packagings. Anything else probably can’t be recycled which includes bubblewrap, clingfilm and food and drink pouches.

With these tips, plastic recycling has never been easier!

Originally published