Page last updated at 00:11 GMT, Thursday, 12 July 2007 01:11 UK

The tough problem of plastics

By Dan Parkinson
BBC News

Just 7% of the two million tonnes of plastics waste created each year in the UK is recycled, experts estimate.

Plastic bottles
About a quarter of all household plastic bottles are now recycled
Because of the variety of plastic types and the cost of recycling them, many councils have been slow to introduce comprehensive plastics recycling schemes.

Progress is being made - but many households keen to recycle are still finding the situation frustrating.

Stephen Coombes, 29, of Wigan, Greater Manchester, has to drive his plastic bottles to a recycling point a good 10 minutes away.

"It is ridiculous that in this day and age councils are not collecting from households," he said.

"This is a major thing and people are becoming more and more aware. We need to recycle as much as we possibly can.

"I know people who would like to recycle plastics but don't because they can't be bothered going to the recycling point."

Getting better

But, as attention becomes increasingly focused on plastics - thanks to some vocal recycling groups - the situation is gradually changing.

Kerbside systems... on average outperform 'bring' schemes by four to one
Paul Davidson, Wrap
One area in which they have been making strides is in plastic bottle recycling.

Plastics recycling body Recoup says 92% of UK local authorities now offer some sort of recycling for plastic bottles.

It says 3,300 million plastic bottles - a quarter of all the plastic bottles in household waste - were recycled in 2007.

This compares with just 3% of plastic bottles being recycled in 2001, which highlights progress made in recent years.

I recycle everything that my council will collect
Kath, Sheffield

Recoup says more councils collecting plastic bottles from homes has been key in increasing recycling rates.

A total of 60% of local authorities now offer kerbside collections for plastic bottles, which means 13.9m households get their plastics picked up.

Blend problems

But despite the ground gained in recent years, campaigners say more needs to be done.

Paul Davidson, plastics technology manager at government recycling agency Wrap, said: "We have to remember that three out of every four bottles are still not being recycled.

"We have to encourage local authorities to move towards kerbside systems, which on average outperform 'bring' schemes by four to one."

He added: "For those already operating kerbside collections of plastic bottles, we will continue to provide support to help further improve these collections in a sustainable and cost-effective manner."

Most councils focus on plastic bottles because they are made from one of three plastics types - out of more than 50 - and are very easily identified.

Recycling plant
Plastic items like yoghurt pots can be very difficult to deal with

Fizzy drink, squash, milk and detergent bottles, for example, are usually made from either PET (polyethylene terephthalate), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), or PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

Other plastic items are made from a wide variety of plastics types and are much more difficult for councils to deal with.

Many margarine tubs and rigid food containers, for instance, are made from blends of plastics.

Yoghurt pots are not generally accepted in plastic recycling schemes because they are made from polystyrene, which has an entirely different make-up from the plastics used for bottles.

Other difficulties surrounding plastics recycling include their high volume to weight, making collection and transportation difficult and expensive.

There are also often high levels of contamination in plastic, which make the recycled plastics less useable, especially where food products are involved.

'Future looks good'

But with 20 times more plastic being produced today than 50 years ago, campaigners say it is crucial recycling rates continue to improve.

There are a number of issues to overcome. One is encouraging companies to use packaging which can be easily recycled
John Simmons, Recoup
Currently about 30 local authorities in the UK recycle plastics beyond bottles, and campaigners hope more councils will follow suit.

John Simmons, chief executive of Recoup, said: "We are very optimistic that the same gains made in bottle recycling can be made with pots, tubs and trays.

"There are a number of issues to overcome. One is encouraging companies to use packaging which can be easily recycled.

"At the other end of the spectrum we are looking at automatic sorting systems which can recognise the plastics.

"But the future looks good."

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