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In my local council (I live in the UK), one category of confirmed recyclables is "plastic bottles, pots, tubs & trays". But surely not all plastic tubs can be recycled? Some of the plastic tubs I end up after using a food product may have a Resin Identification Code (RIC), but others aren't. Mushroom and meat tubs tend to feel different to normal PP (RIC: 05) plastic tubs, and generally don't seem to have RICs. I know that RICs aren't actually a guarantee of recyclability (e.g. in my council HDPE or any kind of bottle lids are not recyclable (too small)).

So, can all of the day-to-day plastic food tubs be thrown for recycling, even if they don't have RICs? I suppose it depends on the sorting facilities for each council, so if they can't sort bottle tops, should I avoid throwing sans-RIC tubs for recycling on the grounds they can't be sorted either?

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This needs to be done on a case-by-case basis.
Almost anything CAN be recycled if desired, but not always cost effectively or sensibly.
Some materials are recycled by some processors and not by others.
So, a strictly technically correct answer in one situation may not reflect practical reality in another.

In this case your uncertainty is probably due to inadequate advice by your council. Unfortunately, if they do not clearly state what they would like you to do, or what you are required to do or may do, then they may not care or know.
This may represent a lack of caring on their part, with an unknown fraction of 'recycled' goods being sent for disposal, or may represent a lack of communications by the council.

If you care about the overall impact of such operations on the environment, and it sounds as though you do, you may be able to do everyone in your area a service by first (politely) inquiring from the council re what they really want, then perhaps following this up with a talk to the people who process the material*, followed by whatever action seems likely to improve the advice that all recyclers receive.

Lots of work? Possibly yes.
Liable to improve results? Only maybe :-(.
But it may prove to be very worthwhile overall.


*I'm an engineer. When I really want to get things done, talking to the people "at the coal face" tends to happen :-).

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Realistic Expections

If requirements become too detailed for something such as recycling, you can expect the eyes of most people to glaze over and ignore them altogether. This means the KISS principle is very important, and this might be what the council had in mind when publishing their instructions.

The top level goals for a recycling program are likely to be:

  • Reducing waste sent to landfill
  • Keeping costs low
  • Minimising any other environmental effects, such as litter (eg from recycling bins spilling) or pollution from the recycling process

One might find that even though providing more detailed instructions to the public might reduce sorting costs slightly, it may also cause many people to throw everything in the Too Hard basket (ie the rubbish), rather than separating out their recycling.

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I think both the answers of Russell McMahon and Highly Irregular are great. On the one hand the council should keep things simple so the recycling system is easy to use for everyone, but on the other hand the council should give more detailed information for people who really care and want to do the best they can.

But to actually answer your question: marking of plastic packaging in the EU is voluntary, so if the packaging doesn't contain any symbol it's up to you or your recycling center to determine the type. My experience is that compostable plastic normally does have a marking (probably for promotional purposes) and has the word 'compostable' and/or a logo like this one on it:

EU compostable plastic logo

If there is really nothing on it the help you identify it, chances are the plastic is PP, PE, PET or perhaps PS. Other types are uncommon for food packaging.

If your council doesn't provide information how to handle an object, you can use these two general guidelines:

  1. If a plastic is compostable, don't throw it away with other plastics. Instead throw it away with other organic material, or else in the 'other/general' waste. This is because compostable plastics will degrade the quality of recycled traditional plastic.

  2. If you cannot determine the plastic type, throw the plastic away in the plastics waste stream. Any good recycling center will have methods to filter out unwanted objects from a recycling stream, so even if the plastic turns out to be non-recyclable it most probably will be filtered out.

Obviously the second guideline is a 'last resort' measure. It's best to first try to find out what kind of material it is and what the preferred method of disposal is according to your council

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