What are the types of plastic and what are they used for?


Over the past few years we’ve all become more aware of plastic pollution and the impact it has on the environment. Plastic provides a durable, mouldable and hygienic solution for much of the packaging in our homes – so what actually are plastics, how do they differ, and which types should we be using more or less of?

What are plastics?

All plastics are made from polymers. A polymer is a chemical compound that contains a large number of identical molecular repeating units, and can be synthetic or naturally occurring. They can be made from a renewable source (bio-based) or non-renewable source (oil) and either can be designed to biodegrade or not.

Polymers are moulded or shaped by pressure and temperature to create the packaging and plastic items we see in our home. There are lots of different types of plastics, which is down to the type of polymer they are made up of. The type of plastic used is generally picked because of the specific properties it has. For example, they can be flexible, hard, brittle, oven-heated, frozen or withstand harsh chemicals.

Which plastic packaging types are good, and which are bad?

It isn’t a simple answer when it comes to which plastic types are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The first consideration is what properties the plastic needs in order to fulfil the specific function. Another important consideration is whether it is recyclable.

Some plastics types are easier to recycle as part of our current recycling infrastructure, for instance hard Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), which is the type of plastic used to make fizzy drink and water bottles. Recycling plastic means it can be regenerated into a new plastic item and displaces the need for natural resources, saves energy and reduces landfill; in turn reducing carbon emissions.

Currently it’s difficult for us to recycle some types of plastic, such as Polystyrene (PS), which is often used for multi-packs of yoghurt, fast-food boxes and to keep white goods safe when they are being transported. There is a huge amount of work being done to re-design packaging to use the types of plastics which are easier to recycle.

Eliminating problem plastics

Some single-use plastic packaging which can’t be recycled needs to go. WRAP is working with businesses through The UK Plastics Pact to eliminate single-use plastic items that have been identified as problematic or unnecessary.

The UK Plastics Pact accounts for 95% of supermarkets and the majority of brands sold through them. Eight plastic items have been identified to be eliminated before the end of 2020:

  1. Disposable plastic cutlery
  2. All polystyrene packaging
  3. Cotton buds with plastic stems
  4. Plastic stirrers
  5. Plastic straws
  6. Oxo-degradables that break down to create microplastics
  7. PVC packaging
  8. Disposable plastic plates and bowls

The work doesn’t stop there. The UK Plastics Pact has challenged business to tackle the issues behind a wide range of other items in the near future, such as plastic film packaging, fruit net bags, sachets and plastic coffee pods.

It’s also important that we play our part to reduce the plastics we consume and opt for re-usable plastics where possible. But it’s not a simple case of replacing plastic with something else. We need to remember that all materials have an environmental impact.  Read our top tips here.

Should we choose natural plastics over synthetic?

Plastics can either be fossil-based or bio-based. To find out more about the difference, and benefits and drawbacks of each, you can read our information on compostable and biodegradable plastics here.

What are the most common types of plastic?

Which plastics can I recycle?

Look out for the recycling labels on pack to find out more about recycling options. To find out more about how and where to recycle certain plastic items, visit www.recyclenow.com