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Recycling plastic and glass – why it makes a difference by David McEvoy

With a little understanding of the issues involved, we can re-use or recycle most of the masses amount of waste we produce from plastic and glass and at the same time we can reduce costs, save energy, protect the environment and even create new jobs. Although waste awareness is on the increase, recycling rates are on the low side and many people are still unaware of just why recycling is so important.

Recycling Plastic Waste

According to Recoup (the UK’s leading authority on plastics waste management), every household uses approximately 373 plastic bottles a year of which 29 are recycled and yet recycling just one of these plastic bottles can save enough energy to light a 60 watt bulb for up to 6 hours. So why are we not recycling more plastic?

One of the main issues regarding the recycling of plastic is lack of opportunity to recycle. This is partly because plastic can be contaminated with other materials and the cost of processing this can outweigh the cost of producing more plastic so compared to other materials like glass and paper, there are fewer places to recycle plastic. However, plastic is lightweight and highly versatile and one way round this is to re-use plastic within the home.

There are many different types of plastic but most plastics fall into one of the following main types:

* PET (Polyethylene terphthalate) – Fizzy drinks bottles and trays for convenience foods to put straight into the oven * HDPE (High density polyethylene) – Milk bottles and washing up liquid bottles * PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) – Cling film, juice and water bottles, shampoo bottles * LDPE (Low density polyethylene) – Plastic bags * PP (Polypropylene) – Margarine tubs and microwavable meal containers * PS (Polystyrene) – Egg cartons, plastic cutlery and cups, yoghurt pots, meat and fish foam trays

Plastics are largely used for packaging and because they have a relatively short life span (they tend to be thrown away as soon as their contents are used), they represent a major waste problem. They are also generally non-degradable which means they can take a long time to decompose and break down. Landfill sites require more and more space due to the amount of plastic being disposed of and this is an area of concern, particularly as around 80% of plastic is disposed of in landfill sites with less than 10% currently being recycled (Environment Agency Report 2001).

Solutions are constantly being sought and although more and more supermarket chains and retailers are now issuing biodegradable plastic bags, this in itself can be a problem as many people might think that it is ok to just throw them away as they will eventually break down, which is not always the case. Some of these biodegradable bags rely on sunlight to break them down so if they are thrown away as part of household rubbish and end up in a landfill site, they will not degrade because there is no light.

What you can do to help…

* Re-use plastic bags as much as possible – don’t throw them away * Buy products with very little packaging * Try to re-use plastic pots and tubs within the home, for example to store small items like buttons and screws and for germinating seeds or donate them to playgroups and schools for arts and crafts * Buy refillable products as much as possible * When purchasing fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, don’t put them into plastic bags – it isn’t necessary * Find out what plastic re-cycling facilities there are in your own area and use them, encourage your family and friends to do the same * Try to buy products made from plastic that has been recycled

Recycling Glass Waste

Glass is an inert substance and so is not directly harmful to the environment but it is not degradable either so if sent to a landfill site it will stay there indefinitely which is a real shame because glass is such an easy and very useful material which can be recycled over and over again without any loss to quality.

Recycling glass is easy for the consumer, particularly as the number of bottle banks and roadside collections of glass are increasing. By far the most common use for glass within the home is in the form of bottles and jars and this makes up around 80% of recycled glass.

When recycling your glass containers, bottle banks often require the glass to be separated according to colour, which in itself can be a barrier to recycling as the consumer has to put in a little more effort, but there are reasons for this. As you can imagine, it would be a mammoth not to mention expensive task to separate every bit of coloured from clear broken glass before processing so there are few facilities that can currently do this, which is why it is so important to separate them beforehand.

One of the issues with recycling glass in the UK is that the UK produces a large amount of clear glass and yet the amount of clear “cullet” produced (cullet is basically a collection of broken glass) is low in comparison to the amount of green cullet. One reason for this is that a lot of green bottles (wine for example) are imported leading to a surplus of green cullet and at the same time a lot of clear glass is exported in the form of spirits. Another is that a lot of people are still not recycling clear glass containers other than bottles and this reduces the amount of clear glass cullet available. However, on a positive note, mixed coloured glass waste can be used for the building of roads and in the construction industry so it is important to recycle ALL glass containers.

Contaminants like metal rings, paper labels, plastic etc. must be identified and removed from the glass before the glass can be turned into new containers and much of this is done using equipment like metal detectors, vacuums, crushers and also by plain old manual inspection.

What you can do to help…

* Re use bottles and jars within the home * Where possible, return jars and bottles (milk bottles for example) * Before recycling glass rinse out all bottles and jars and remove any tops and metal rings etc. as these can damage the furnaces used to recycle the glass * Recycle all glass containers not just drinks bottles, this can include jars, medicine bottles, glass food containers and so on * Make sure when placing glass into a bottle bank that you put the right colour in the right bank

Making a difference

Surveys have shown that if recycling was made easier, more people would be willing to recycle. The fact is, it doesn’t take a lot of effort or time to recycle or re-use an item, only a little initiative, and yet it is one way we can be sure of making a real difference to the environment and the world in which we live.

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October 8, 2007 Posted by | Recycling plastic | Leave a comment