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Wednesday 6th March 2019

We've all been there at some point. You've just finished making your salad and now you're cleaning up. As you dispose of everything in their respective bins, you take a pause and look at the salad bag. You check for the signs on it. You've understood nothing. If you're really keen, you may even look it up. Probably, still nothing. In a matter of minutes, that salad bag becomes a problem, leaving you frustrated and questioning why you even bother to make any effort at all.

This is something many of us face every day with a number of everyday items, be it ready meal trays, foil wrappers and crisp packets. Plastic seems to be the one material the majority of people do not know how to handle. Turns out, they're right.

If you're a keen environmentalist then you know that there are 7 main types of plastics and these are distinguished through the RIC codes. This system includes a set of symbols with numbers. This symbol then appears on products to identify the resin out of which the plastic is made. These ID codes appear on a high % of packaging and every consumer in the UK will have had some exposure to them. The categories are seen below:

Primarily, it is important to note that simply having one of these codes on a packet does not mean that product can be recycled. Rather, it should signal what you should do with the material you want to discard of.

However, how well do these codes actually work?

Take 1, PET as an example. When used to make a bottle, that type of plastic is highly desirable and can be recycled easily. But, the same type of plastic has different detailed composition and structure to the PET used for pre-packed meal tray film covering, which is not of the same quality. It is therefore less desirable for recycling. The same thing happens with the PET used in pots, tubs and trays. Here, the PET is of a lower quality and so needs to be added in small doses (approx. 20%) into a bale to maintain a high enough quality. This confusion is seen in the other categories too. For instance, the 5, PP used in a soup pot, is compositionally different from the plastic category 5 used in a salad bag. 

Not only are there different types of the same category, as seen above, but the RIC designation also only covers the main type of polymer used in a plastic product and doesn't take into consideration the layers of different polymer types that might be included. This creates a number of issues which may lead to contamination.

Finally, colour also has an impact, particularly the colour black which RIC codes don’t recognise at all. Dyed and pigmented plastics, for example, can be troubling for materials recovery facilities while clear plastics have the highest material value because of its flexibility. So, yes, a grey bottle and a clear bottle, in reality, are not the same. 

If you look at the codes in this way, it becomes very clear that something needs to be done. As organisations call on to people to recycle plastic, stating there will soon be more plastic than fish in our ocean, they fail to give us the right tools to do so, deeming all efforts futile.

Continue to follow the story @RecorraUK, as we #WiseUpToPlastics.

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