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Plastics recycling in north London

All the plastic collected in the mixed recycling containers in north London is taken to the local materials recovery facility (MRF)[1] where the plastic is separated from other items and sent for reprocessing.

Most of north London’s plastic recycling is processed in the United Kingdom. Last year 91% of the collected plastic recycling managed by NLWA was processed in the United Kingdom. From the remaining tonnage, 8%, (equivalent to 900 tonnes), was sent to facilities located in Europe and less than 1% was sent to other facilities in Asia. The proportion of plastic waste exported abroad for further reprocessing is relatively low compared to other local authorities. Provisional figures from last year showed that a total of 1,042 tonnes of plastics were exported from north London, equivalent to 0.002% of the 611,000 tonnes exported from the whole of the UK even though NLWA manages 3% of the UK’s waste.

The most common plastics collected in north London for further reprocessing are plastic bottles and packaging such as empty food pots, tubs and trays. Food packaging is commonly made of Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE) and Polypropylene (PP). It can be difficult for the MRF to separate the different polymer types, so mixed plastics are often baled and transported to specialist plastics recovery facilities (PRFs) for further sorting. 

All the plastic bottles collected for recycling are sorted into different types and colours. The bottles are then cleaned and separated by type of plastic, ground into flakes or beads and washed and sorted again. Plastic beads and flakes made from the pre-used bottles are melted down to make new products. For example, the recycled plastic can be used to create fibres for the textile industry - fleece jackets are sometimes made from recycled plastic. Other options for recycled plastic are for it to be made into bin liners and carrier bags, CD/DVD cases and children’s playground equipment.

The collected plastic pots, tubs and trays are taken to the MRFs where they are separated from other items, squashed and sent for reprocessing. The clean plastics are separated by type of plastic, ground into beads or flakes and washed and sorted again. The plastic beads and flakes made are melted down to make new products, including garden furniture and compost bins.

Carrier bags can be recycled in north London. They are accepted as part of the household recycling collection. The bags that you pull off a roll in the supermarket can also be recycled in north London. Plastic bag recycling involves chipping the bags into pellets that can then be reprocessed into new reusable bags.

You can find out more about where your recycling goes here. The videos below show the process used for sorting recycling at the MRF used for sorting north London's material.

The reason that some household items cannot be recycled is because they are often made of a combination of different materials that cannot be reprocessed easily. 

Plastics that are not accepted for recycling in north London

Hard plastics: There is currently no cost-effective market for recycling hard plastics such as children’s toys and hard plastic containers. Any hard plastic items such as children’s’ toys can be disposed of in the container marked for general waste disposal at a reuse and recycling centre. Hard plastic items, such as toys, that are in good condition can be put aside for the Second Time Around reuse shop at the Kings Road reuse and recycling centre where they will be sold.

Plastic film: Plastic film, including cling film (which is made from polyvinyl chloride or PVC) can be recycled. However, this material is not accepted for recycling in north London; plastic film is often contaminated by food waste and it is also practically very difficult for the sorting equipment to separate it out from the other recyclable plastic.

Food container bags: We do not have the technology to recycle these items in north London as Food container bags are not recyclable since they are generally made of more than one material like paper, foil and different type of plastics. This includes the following items, which should go in your general waste bin:

Medicine packs: This packaging is normally made from a mixture of two materials making the separation process too energy intensive to be cost-effective.

Medical equipment: Medical waste such as syringes and drip bags cannot be accepted for recycling due to their potential hazardous nature.

Toothpaste tubes: Squeezable toothpaste tubes cannot be recycled, especially because it is difficult to remove all the toothpaste. However, pump action tubes are accepted for recycling.

Expanded polystyrene: Polystyrene is very cheap to produce and due to its very low weight and high volume needs specialised machinery to separate it into useful elements. This means the recycling process is too energy intensive to be cost-effective.

Plastic bottles containing chemicals: Strong chemicals that are highly poisonous are hazardous to staff and can damage the recycling equipment. Please check the bottle for disposal instructions for these items.

Compostable plastic: Compostable plastic (sometimes also known as Vegware) is a type of material made from renewable materials such as vegetable starch and soy protein. Compostable plastic should be put into your general waste and not your food waste or garden waste.

This is because in north London food waste is processed in anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities and mixed food and garden waste goes to in-vessel composting (IVC) facilities. All packaging (compostable liners / Vegware / plastic bags) is removed from food and garden waste by ‘de-packaging’ machinery and disposed of. This has to be done because non-compostable items are often put into the food/garden waste when they shouldn’t be, causing contamination. So, whilst compostable plastic can be composted in some commercial IVC facilities, the de-packaging machinery is not currently able to distinguish between compostable and non-compostable packaging when removing contaminants.

Collection information

All plastic waste collected from your recycling bin is sent for sorting at a materials recovery facility (MRF). Further sorting is carried out at plastic recovery facilities (PRFs) in the UK. Recycling collections are arranged by the individual north London borough councils. The recycling is always kept separate from the general waste for disposal – even if the general waste and the recycling are collected in the same collection truck. You can find out more about recycling and waste collection in your borough by using the links below.


[1] NLWA has contracts with one materials recovery facility (MRF) based in London (Biffa Waste Services Ltd) for processing mixed recyclable materials collected from north London residents and businesses. Enfield arranges their own collection services their own MRF services, Biffa Waste Services Ltd.