The truth about recycling plastic bottles

By Chris Hann

The truth about recycling plastic bottles

The average person uses 156 plastic bottles per year. It’s estimated that 90% of those bottles aren’t recycled and end up in landfill, or dumped throughout the environment, taking up to 1,000 years to degrade.

Some more not-so fantastic plastic facts:

  • 450 Years is the average time for a plastic bottle to decompose, though many can take up to 1,000 years
  • 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfill every day with roughly 1,500 plastic bottles thrown away every second
  • 8 million is a conservative estimate of the number of plastic bottles in the ocean
  • 937 million tons is The World Economic Forum’s prediction of how much plastic will be in the ocean by 2050 (compared to 895 million tons of fish)
  • 13 billion plastic bottles are used each year in the UK

It’s more than just the bottle

It takes about 5.3 litres of water to produce a typical 500ml single-use water bottle. That’s ten times the amount of water it will ultimately hold.

Every year, 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to manufacture plastic bottles. More oil is then burned transporting them around the world. So, the environmental impact of a plastic bottle goes well beyond the container itself.

The economics of recycling plastic don’t add up

It costs more to recycle a plastic bottle than to produce a new one and dispose of the old one.

It’s not cheap to recycle plastic. The huge amount of time and tools needed to clean it, take the labels off, separate all the different types of plastic from one another, and then actually recycle it into something else, means that it’s not always a simple or cost-effective process.

So, plastic can be turned into new things - sometimes. But it’s a very technical, expensive process. And plastic degrades each time it is reused, so it can't be recycled more than a few times. Whereas new plastic is cheap to produce.

However, not all recycling is bad. Aluminium, used to make drink cans, is infinitely recyclable, while plastic is not.

But this symbol means it can be recycled, right?

There’s more than just one type of plastic. There are quite a few types. And they can't all be melted down together. The fact that all plastic has to be sorted and separated only adds to the great expense of recycling.

Lots of that plastic being sorted can’t be recycled at all, despite misleading displayed graphics and identification codes that you might see displayed.

  1. signifies that the product is made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (beverage bottles, cups, other packaging, etc.)
  2. signifies high-density polyethylene (HDPE) (bottles, cups, milk jugs, etc.)
  3. signifies polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (pipes, siding, flooring, etc.)
  4. signifies low-density polyethylene (LDPE) (plastic bags, six-pack rings, tubing, etc.)
  5. signifies polypropylene (PP) (auto parts, industrial fibres, food containers, etc.)
  6. signifies polystyrene (PS) (plastic utensils, Styrofoam, cafeteria trays, etc.)
  7. signifies other plastics,(acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate, and polylactic acid)

The three arrows in a triangular loop is a globally recognised symbol for recycling. When used to help separate waste plastics, the suggestion is that all different types will be recycled - from polyethylene terephthalate, to polystyrene, to ‘other’. But only numbers one and two in the chart above are recycled in any significant amount.

What can we do?

We can each do our own small part to help fix the problem by reducing the number of plastic bottles and other single-use plastics that we buy.

There are plenty of ways to help reduce our own reliance on single-use plastic, such as:

  • replacing plastic bottles and coffee cups with reusable cups and bottles
  • moving away from disposable products with plastic in them (cotton buds, toothbrush, razors, cutlery, etc) to those produced from sustainable materials such as bamboo
  • replacing plastic toothpaste tubes with tablets
  • using reusable nappies instead of disposable ones
  • avoid using plastic shopping bags
  • buying food and household items from refill shops where possible
  • using water filters to improve the quality of our tap water to stop us buying bottled water

If we begin to rely less on recycling and place more emphasis on cutting single-use plastic out of our lives, the less demand there would be for new plastic to be manufactured in the first place.


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