Following recent changes to Sheffield’s recycling service affecting all households in the city it’s no surprise that everyone’s talking about plastic. Because of recent TV shows such as War on Plastic, Blue Planet and Drowning in Plastic more and more people are becoming aware of the effects that plastic waste has on the planet.

Homes and businesses in the UK throw away nearly five million tonnes each year. Although many people believe that a lot of the plastic thrown away from homes in Sheffield ends up in the landfill, in fact that’s not what happens: in Sheffield no plastics are sent to landfill.

Sheffield City Council has explained what happens to the city’s plastic waste and answers one of the questions they are often asked: Why in Sheffield can’t we recycle plastics that aren’t bottles?

Gillian Charters, Head of Waste Management at Sheffield City Council, explained:

“People using their brown bin for plastic bottles, cans and glass bottles can be assured that all of those items are sent for recycling.

“The plastic bottles from Sheffield’s brown bins are recycled into a range of different products, including  T-shirts, coats, toys, duvet filling, fences, flooring, street signs and of course new plastic bottles right here in the UK and across the globe.

“The reason we can’t recycle plastics that aren’t bottles is because not all plastic is the same. There are seven types of plastic.  Some are frequently recycled, others are sometimes or occasionally recycled and there is one group of plastic that is very difficult to recycle.

“Although in theory, almost all types of plastics can be recycled, doing so relies on the necessary technology to separate and process the various types of plastic for recycling, as well as sufficient demand from factories and processors to take these plastics and recycle them in to new products.  The availability of both the technology and the outlets needs to be sustainable and affordable.

“In reality, this means that we provide a recycling service for plastic bottles because these are made using high value materials which can easily be recycled both here in the UK and overseas, and provide an affordable and sustainable recycling option.  In fact, in Sheffield, all plastic bottles collected from brown bins are currently sent to facilities in the UK and Europe for recycling.”

Some residents have also questioned why some other authorities collect other types of plastics, such as pots, tubs and trays and carrier bags.

Ms Charters added: “These products are made using lower value, lower quality plastics, and there are limited facilities in the UK able to accept these materials, which means most are sent overseas.  Previously most of these plastics were sent to China, however last year the Chinese government banned the import of most low value plastics, which has led to a worldwide shortage of outlets and has meant that some plastics collected for recycling, have in fact been sent to landfill.”

Councillor Lewis Dagnall, Cabinet Member for Environment, Streetscene and Climate Change at Sheffield City Council, said: “It’s clearly misleading that companies sell products that are labelled as recyclable, which in fact cannot be realistically recycled. The Local Government Association is pressuring businesses and the Government to make sure all packaging is truly recyclable.”

So, what plastics can be recycled in the brown bin?  If it is made of plastic and it is shaped like a bottle, it can go in the brown bin. This includes soft drink bottles, containers for milk, motor oil, shampoos, conditioners, soap bottles, detergents, and bleaches, plus plastic bottle tops and trigger sprays too.

For other plastic waste such as plastic bags, lunchboxes, margarine containers, yogurt pots, plastic food boxes, and other plastic pots, tubs and trays there are two options.

They can be placed in the recycling bins at Household Waste Recycling Centres or those located in supermarket car parks.  Locations of these can be found at  Wherever possible these materials will be sent to processors in the UK and overseas for recycling.

The other option is to put them in the general waste, black household bin, where these plastics will be used to produce electricity and heat. Black bin waste in Sheffield is taken to the city’s Energy Recovery Facility and burnt. This process produces steam which is turned into electricity and heat. The electricity is sent to the National Grid and produces enough electricity to power 22,600 homes. The heat is sent through underground pipes and provides heat and hot water to 150 buildings in Sheffield including the Town Hall, Crucible Theatre and the Weston Park Museum.

Cllr Dagnall added: “To achieve the best outcome for the environment, and to create local jobs, we need major public investment by the UK Government in local recycling facilities. Shipping recycling to East Asia is unsustainable and misleads people who recycle in good faith.

“But it’s always worth remembering the motto ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recover’. The first step is always to consider how we can reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce. Businesses in Sheffield can take the lead in cutting down on single-use plastics and offering sustainable alternatives to customers. We as customers can ask for this too.”