Recycling rigid plastics – do you know how to recycle plastics other than packaging?

23.5.2023 10.10Updated: 23.5.2023 11.11

When an old plastic flower pot, toy or cutting board is so broken that it is only fit for the bin, it should not be put in the collection container for plastic waste that you have in your home, because that container is for packaging plastics only. However, improving the circulation of so-called rigid plastics is an important part of sustainable consumption, which is why the collection system for them is being constantly developed. Read more about the processing of different plastics and see below the points where rigid plastics are collected in Espoo this summer.

Recycling all plastics

The natural resources and energy needed to produce new plastic material can be left unused when new plastic objects are made from existing plastics. Using recycled plastics in production consumes only about 15% of the energy required to make new plastics (Fortum, 2019(external link)). Additionally, it has been calculated that 60% of Europe’s plastic demand could be met through the extensive reuse and recycling of plastics by 2050 and that this would also halve the carbon dioxide emissions from the plastic industry (Sitra & European Climate Foundation, 2018(external link)). Plastic is quite suitable for recycling, which means that a broken or otherwise unusable plastic product can be melted down and moulded into a new product. Recycled plastic can be used to make a wide range of products for both industrial and domestic use. Flower pots, buckets and dish brushes are examples of the latter.

Sorting different materials at home is an easy but essential part of sustainable living.

At the moment, only packaging plastics are collected separately from consumers, but in reality, a sustainable lifestyle and international climate goals both require that all plastics be recycled. Every time a plastic product is thrown into mixed waste, a part of additional value once created for society is lost, even though the value could still be utilised again. The recycling of packaging plastics is already a significant feat, because a large portion of the plastics in the world are used for packaging. However, there plenty of other plastic materials that could be utilised. In industry, rigid plastics are already circulated to an extent, because materials unnecessary for business operations – such as plastics – are not seen as waste but as a resource that can be a boon to someone else. This is an attitude we all should adopt. Instead of quickly disposing of our impulse purchases, it would be fairer to both us humans and the world at large if we were to consider our purchases more, use our purchases for a longer time and, once the products have reached the end of their useful lives, recycle them appropriately. But how to recycle non-packaging plastics and why are they not collected separately from households?

Costs and the big picture as the issue

Costs issues are the main reason why only packaging plastics are collected separately from Helsinki Metropolitan Area residents, but there are other practical reasons for this as well. Somebody must pay for the collection and processing of waste, and in Finland, producer liability means that this is the responsibility of the producers and importers of plastic packaging. Therefore, a company that introduces to the market a product packaged in plastic will automatically have to pay for the waste management of the packaging. Together, these companies have formed a plastic packaging producer community that organises the recycling of all plastic packaging. But just like you probably do not want to pay for the cleaning of your friend’s apartment or the repairs of your friend’s car, the plastic packaging producers do not want to pay for the waste management of the rest of the plastic industry.

The plastic vocabulary can sometimes be confusing. The term plastic is actually a generic term used for hundreds of chemically different materials that can have very different properties: one is the most flexible, another can be used to insulate cold or warmth, some can be very thin while some are very durable. The shared characteristics of all plastics are that on a chemical level, they all have a long polymer chain and that in practice, they are all suitable for thermoforming. However, the categories packaging plastics and rigid plastics are not based on chemistry but the intended use. The term packaging plastic refers to plastic that has acted as the packaging of another product, and the term rigid plastic refers to such plastics that have been used to produce utility articles.

Even this pile can tomorrow be a plastic bag, flower pot or bucket, for example.

However, the way a product is used has an impact on its lifecycle, which is why there are practical issues involved in the separate collection of rigid plastics: households produce rigid plastic waste relatively little and irregularly in comparison to packaging plastics. If the idea is that materials are collected separately for environmental reasons, we must remember that the vehicles used to empty the waste containers and the machines used to process the materials also consume energy and produce emissions. There must be enough recyclable fractions so that the emission savings achieved through recycling exceed the emissions from collecting and processing. Even if the approach is that materials are recycled for cost reasons, we must calculate whether the financial savings created by the use of recycled materials exceed the financial costs created by collecting the materials. The processing of rigid plastics is also hindered by the fact that they can contain almost any kind of plastic mixtures and additives. Packaging is also made from a wide range of different plastics, but the overall variety in packaging plastics is a little more limited.

Solutions in the air

Despite these challenges, the plastics industry and the waste management sector are actively looking for ways to improve the circulation of rigid plastics. Espoo is also involved in the development work: The project Closed Plastic Circle – From Regional Pilots to Implementation led by Espoo supports the growth of the recycled plastics market and tests new methods for recycling different types of plastic fractions. There are many possible paths to recycling rigid plastics: if the production of virgin plastics becomes significantly more expensive due to, for example, climate regulation, collecting even smaller amounts of plastic for recycling becomes financially viable. Or if the technology used in chemical recycling evolves, recycling even the difficult mixed plastics will become possible. On the other hand, we should remember that even rigid plastic that has ended up in mixed waste is not completely useless; mixed waste is utilised as energy in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area.

Ultimately, the goal is to make the collection and recycling of all types of plastics as easy and effortless as possible for every resident. While waiting for such a large-scale collection system, you can reduce the need to use new natural resources by taking your plastic waste to one of the collection points below. Every recycled plastic item is a building block for a more sustainable future in the sense that the more plastic is recycled more regularly, the easier it is for industry to start using recycled plastic as a raw material and the more attractive supporting a more comprehensive recycling system becomes to investors.

Collection points for rigid plastics in Espoo

This summer, you can take your unusable rigid plastics to at least three locations in Espoo:

  • The plastic workshop “Get a grip on plastic” operates in Keran Hallit from 4 May to 7 July. You can bring to the workshop unusable polypropylene, which you can identify by the triangle-shaped 05 PP stamp usually found on the bottom of the product. Anyone can come to the workshop to try out working on recycled plastic. You can also come empty-handed. Register for the free workshop here!(external link)
  • The Ämpäristöteko environmental campaign on 5 June 2023: The campaign #Ämpäristöteko coordinated by the Finnish Plastics Industries Federation collects consumers’ used rigid plastic products for recycling. The campaign is nationwide and the collection point in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area is organised by HSY. Read more and see all the collection points here.(external link)
  • Sortti Stations: All Sortti Stations accept rigid plastic waste all year round. See the HSY website for further instructions.(external link)

If you want to get rid of a plastic product that is still whole and can be used for its original purpose, take it to Kierrätyskeskus or some other used goods store.

  • Sustainability