The recycling system’s that we have in Britain are pretty confusing if you ask me! There are a plethora of logos and symbols placed onto product packaging. Each logo is designed to help us to dispose of materials most responsibly, but unfortunately, they have become confused and therefore often misinterpreted or ignored.
This confusion has led to many people ‘wishcycling’. This is the term for when people put items into their recycling bins in the hope that they get recycled, but without knowing if the item is indeed recyclable. Whilst it’s best to encourage people to recycle, if it’s done through wishcycling we run the risk of contaminating batches of recyclable materials and also becoming complacent about our waste. Knowledge is power!
I must stress that recycling should come way down our list of priorities in terms of creating more sustainable lifestyles. Our focus should be on reusing and reducing our reliance on single-use materials by buying zero waste and well-made goods wherever possible.
Cooking from scratch and buying second-hand goods are great ways to start reducing our reliance on packaged items, whilst also extending the life of products that already exist.
However, I recognise that we are part of a system that encourages us to buy lots of new and pre-packaged things, so we must also educate ourselves about how best to dispose of these seemingly unavoidable materials.
I would like to try and help you by bringing some clarity to the issue of recycling labels.
Recycling symbols- What do they mean!?
Here is my guide to what the most common symbols stand for and what they require you do when disposing of those materials.
On-Pack Recycling Labels
Many food and household items will now have recycling information displayed on the packaging. This is often referred to as the on-pack recycling label or OPRL. Sometimes these labels will have specific instructions such as ‘Rinse’ before recycling, but it may also be a generic logo that requires you to make your own decision about how to recycle the item.
If in doubt, head to the Recycle Now website as it is packed with information and resources to help inform your recycling actions.
OPRL can also sometimes have an instruction alongside them to ‘Recycle With Bags At Large Supermarket’. This label is often found on soft plastic packaging such as frozen produce bags or those containing dry goods such as porridge oats or fresh vegetables. These materials can be recycled alongside plastic carrier bags as they are all made of the same type of plastic. Depending on which supermarket you go to, there may be a collection point for these plastics. Often you will find the collection point in the foyer of the supermarket, or somewhere near the till points, but if you cant just check with a member of staff.
I think that the OPRL system is currently the most useful and informative method of explaining recycling processes for packaging, and it would be great if something like this was mandatory on all types of packaging.
The Interlocking dot
Many people misinterpret this symbol! This symbol is found on many different products and types of packaging, and it’s easy to see why people might assume that it means the packaging is recyclable. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
The interlocking dot represents the fact that the manufacturer of the product has contributed financially to the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe. It does not always mean that said packet is recyclable, however, it could be.
If this symbol is shown on a paper bag for example then the chances are that the bag is recyclable, but the interlocking logo can also be spotted on many non-recyclable plastic and metal packages. So, look out for this one and investigate further before simply tossing items into your recycling bin thinking you’re doing good!
The Mobius Loop
This might be the most frustrating symbol of all! The Mobius Loop signifies that the packaging item has the capability of being recycled, but this is dependent on your local recycling infrastructure. For instance, in some parts of the country tetrapak (juice cartons) are recycled but in other areas, they are not. So if you see this symbol, the likelihood is that you will be able to recycle the packaging, but you will need to check with your local council or waste contractors to be sure. Don’t get caught out by this one!!
Plastic resin codes
Similarly to the Mobius Loop, the Plastic Resin Code symbols indicate the possibility of recycling but not the guarantee. There are several different types of plastic used in everyday goods, these fall into seven different categories:
1. PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
2. HDPE (High-Density Polyethelene)
3. PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
4. LDPE (Low-density Polyethelene)
5. PP (Polypropylene)
6. PS (Polystyrene)
7. Other or O (Other plastics)
Keep a lookout for these symbols and over time you will gain an understanding of the applications of each type of plastic.
For example resin code 4. LDPE is the type of plastic that can be recycled with carrier bags in large supermarkets. Most drinks bottles are made from 2. LDPE, while 6. PS can be really intriguing because often we just think of polystyrene as the white formed packaging that protects electrical goods etc, but this type of plastic comes in many different forms too!
Some, but not all plastics are recyclable so the resin codes are really important in informing us exactly which type of plastic has been used.
This is possibly one of the most recognisable logos, I remember seeing it on sweet wrappers or crisp packets as a child! The symbol was created by an organisation called Keep Britain Tidy. It has no relevance to the recyclability of the packaging but is simply designed to encourage people to put their litter into a bin rather than discarding it on the ground or in nature. A lovely and much-needed sentiment, but not all that informative!
This topic may need a whole blog post in its own right! But in short, over recent years there has been more and more inclusion of compostable materials in the packaging world. But as is the dominant theme- this is not always as rosy as it seems.
Normally when packaging is labelled as compostable, it means that the material will break down inside an industrial composting facility. Some councils and waste contractors have this technology, but many don’t. For example, there are no commercial composting facilities in Cornwall, so although many shops and cafes offer goods in ‘compostable’ packaging, residents don’t actually have a way to get those materials composted, instead, they will go to landfills or incineration.
Some items are labelled as ‘Home Compostable’. Again this is a fairly recent development and from my experience in my own compost heap, some materials break down pretty fast but others look like they may take years to break down into compost. I’m not totally sold on this option as a solution!
Things to remember
- Recycling can seem confusing, but it doesn’t have to be!
- Always check the information on packaging to see if and how the item can be recycled. Don’t just chuck it in and hope for the best.
- Buy loose and unpackaged products whenever possible, that way you do not even need to worry about how to recycle any packaging
- Arm yourself with knowledge, and share it with friends and family. The more people know about recycling properly, the more benefit for the planet.