Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Plastic packaging – a horror film

Zero Waste Week is an opportunity to reduce landfill waste & save money. In its seventh year, the week runs 1st – 7th September 2014. The theme is “One More Thing” – what one more thing could YOU do? Find out more at or on Twitter using #zerowasteweek

Ever since I spent a summer working on a landfill site, I think twice before putting any items of rubbish in the bin.

Yanley Landfill

Yanley Landfill site, south Bristol, during the Balloon Fiesta in 2007. The site is now closed and is being restored to woodland. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

Living In Bristol, I’m pretty lucky. Every week we have kerbside recycling collections for plastic, paper, glass, aluminum, tin, cardboard and food. There are also a number of household waste recycling centres that take a huge variety of items. I make sure to take my own bags to the shops, steer clear of cucumbers wrapped in three layers of packaging (despite the supposed benefit), and use tupperware rather than clingfilm.

Yet, every fortnight, I still find that that I’m putting one or two carrier bags of rubbish into my wheelie bin. Inspired by #zerowasteweek, I have decided to try and reduce this to an absolute minimum.

A quick look at my kitchen bin reveals that the main culprit is plastic film. Examples in the last week include:

  • Packaging around a newspaper magazine supplement
  • Plastic envelope from an online delivery
  • Plastic bag around salad in my organic veg box!
  • Film of packaging around a multi-pack of loo roll

It seems I’m not the only one. Last year in the UK, 645,000 tonnes1 of plastic film was sent to landfill (that’s about 10kg per person), with plastic film making up 43% of all household packaging1.

Most plastic films are made from polyethylene (PE), a thermoplastic polymer made from the addition chains of the alkene ethylene – C2H4. Unlike other common plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polystyrene (PS), PE does not contain toxic volatiles and can therefore be recycled, and used to make products such as bin liners, floor tiles and…more film.

I sense at this stage, you may have two key questions:

What you can recycle?
The three main types of PE are:

  • LDPE (low density polyethylene) – bread bags; magazine packaging
  • HDE (high density polyethylene) – grocery bags; bags used for air packaging; cereal packets
  • LLDPE (linear low density polyethylene) – glossy, thick and flexible, e.g., ‘bags for life’, high-quality bin liners

These three materials cover most types of household packaging; however, there are some key exceptions which can’t be recycled:

  • Clingfilm contains PVC
  • Bubblewrap can contain nylon
  • Crisp packets are made from polypropylene with a small amount of bonded metal foil

If in doubt, look for any symbols on the back of the packaging (for more info on ‘on pack recycling labels’ or OPRL, click here).

Credit: Recycle Now

On pack recycling labels. Not mandatory, but highly useful. Credit: Recycle Now

Where you can recycle?
We’ve come a long way in ten years. After following the first two of the 3 R’s (reduce, re-use), you can recycle plastic film using the same facilities as plastic bag recycling. In the UK, these ‘banks’ are usually located at the entrances to big supermarkets. Some councils are now starting to include plastic film in kerbside recycling collections.

PE plastic film can be recycled along with plastic bags - most large supermarkets in the UK have disposal facilities. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

PE plastic film can be recycled along with plastic bags – most large supermarkets in the UK have disposal facilities. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

It makes no sense for anybody to be throwing plastic film away, only for it to sit in landfill sites for hundreds of years. Not only is it a criminal waste of valuable oil reserves, but plastic film has economic value and using recycled stock requires much less energy than the manufacture of virgin film.

Governments, policy makers and industry are slowly moving towards reducing and recycling plastic film. The 2012 budget announced recycling targets for all plastic packaging in the UK of 42% by 2017, almost double the 2012 rate, and of 57% for producers using plastic packaging. Furthermore, landfill tax is increasing year on year.

As with everything, the real action starts at home. So for #zerowasteweek, why not put a big plastic bag by your normal recycling containers and start separating out plastic film? It really is one step closer to getting rid of your rubbish bin, once and for all.

Charly completed a PhD in experimental petrology. She used to make pretend volcanoes; now she works in renewable energy. Charly tweets at @C_Stamper.