Can You Recycle Plastic Bottle Tops?

Plastic has become a bit of a hot topic due to the huge amount of waste that’s ending up in the oceans, and in turn entering the food chain as fish and other animals come across it and eat it directly, or as small parts contaminate their food.

There’s a lot of confusion after years of conflicting advice and myths about bottle tops and whether they should stay on bottles, so can they be recycled?

Plastic bottle tops can be recycled with the bottles they come from. Advancing recycling methods, equipment and technology means that advice to remove bottle tops before recycling is becoming out dated.

bottle and large collection of assorted plastic lids

While we all recognise the need to reduce our use of plastic, it’s not realistic to try to remove our use of plastics entirely overnight. The truth is we’ll still be using plastic in our daily lives for at least years, probably decades, and potentially the rest of our lives.

For that reason, we need to minimise use wherever possible and what we do use must be recycled as responsibly as possible. To do that, we need to take responsibility for understanding for to recycle different types of plastic, and make sure we’re familiar with local recycling guidelines to make sure we put the correct materials into our recycling bins for collection. On this page, we’ll talk a little more about the specifics of recycling plastic bottle caps and the bottles they come from.

Should I Remove Plastic Bottle Tops?

In most areas across the country, councils are now operating on a policy of lids on bottles in their kerbside recycling collections. Fortunately, unlike putting the wrong plastics into the wheelie bin, removing bottle tops won’t contaminate anything, it just means less plastic gets recycled than we’d ideally want.

Removing plastic bottle tops is not necessary to recycle bottles, however you can rinse them out using the water left over after washing up to aid the recycling process.

It’s advisable to rinse the bottles out and to replace the caps for two reasons. The first is to help keep your wheelie bins as clean as possible – just like putting general waste into bin bags. Dirty bins can attract wild animals like foxes and rats, as well as local pets like cats.

You should use waste water like left over washing up water wherever possible, because using fresh water in itself has an environmental impact, offsetting the benefit of recycling the bottles and lids in the first place.

So, use waste water in the washing up bowl to rinse bottles out before tipping it away down the sink, and then put the lid back on before tossing it into the recycle bin.

You’ll notice that in the opening paragraph of this section we said ‘most areas’ operate this policy. That’s because there are still a few stragglers when it comes to council recycling around the country.

The best way to be sure is to check your council’s website, but as far as we know the last few areas are now starting to make the final moves to accepting bottles with lids on, so by the time you read this, the chance are it’s fine.

What If You’re In One Of The Few Areas That Remove Bottle Tops For Recycling?

Given the small number of areas that still refuse to recycle bottle tops in kerbside collections, this section is unlikely to apply to many people reading this article, but we’ve left it in for completeness.

In areas that do not accept plastic caps on bottles, collect the lids and take them to the tip on your next visit to dump other waste. Plastics are accepted in all council areas for recycling at HWRC sites. Terracycle also offer bins in some locations and accept bottle tops.

Read more about Terracycle and finding your nearest local collection point here.

What Type Of Plastic Is Used For Bottle Caps?

You might have seen the small markings on plastic packaging and many other products. They’re generally marked with a small triangle logo containing a number, identifying the type of plastic used to make the item. We’ve got a run down on plastic groups and the symbols to help with recycling on this site.

The type of plastic used to make plastic bottle tops is almost always Polypropylene, which is plastic group 5. They’re marked with a number 5 in a triangle, and often accompanied by the abbreviation PP.

Are Bottle Tops The Same Plastic Group As The Bottles?

Bottles are slightly different to caps in that they fall into different groups, with two groups encompassing the vast majority of them. While it’s not conclusive, you can have a good guess of the group they fall into with a quick glance.

Plastic bottles are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) or High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) while the lids come from a different group called Polypropylene (PP). These are group 1,2 and 5 plastics respectively.

When you look at a plastic bottle, if it’s clear it’s likely to be group one plastic, with the marking PETE, PET or PT, or a number one in a triangle. Other bottles are likely to be group two, marked HDPE or HD-PE with a number 2 in a triangle.

Commonly used group one bottles are drinks, whereas group two is often used for detergents. The exception is plastic milk bottles which are usually opaque made from high density polyethylene.

Should I Crush Plastic Bottles For Recycling Before Replacing The Lid?

Some people religiously crush bottles for recycling, while others say you should not do so and they should go into your recycle bin as they are. Should you crush bottles for recycling?

You do not need to crush bottles to put them in your recycling, but the lids should stay on in the vast majority of areas. Squashing them is fine though if you want to do so, and expelling the air will allow you to fit significantly more into your plastic recycling wheelie bin.

In the dim and distant past, it was suggested that flattened bottles can cause problems in the recycling plants, with machinery mistaking them for other types of recycling.

Of course, if paper is contaminated with plastic or vice versa during the recycling process it can render the whole batch useless, but machinery has come on leaps and bounds over a decade or two of recycling collections.

What’s more, the chances of paper and plastic even ending up on the same recycling line these days is small, assuming people use their bins correctly. Single stream recycling isn’t common in the UK, where lots of recycling materials go into the same bin.

Gone are the days of all recycling going into the same bins and being sorted only by machines – in the few areas operating single stream recycling collections, there’s manual processes to filter out the materials in addition to machinery.

For this reason, recycling processes have been designed to accommodate both lids on bottles and bottles being flattened or arriving sealed and full of air (or even still containing liquids).

Can Plastic Bottle Tops Still Be Collected For Charities To Raise Money?

We all know someone that used to collect bottle tops on behalf of charities, but you might have noticed that they’ve disappeared over the course of recent years.

No-one would begrudge a charity being creative and making money while doing something great for the environment, but the march of recycling techniques and technology had meant that you need a lot more plastic to recycle to make this approach viable.

The value of a tonne of plastic for recycling has plummeted, so is no longer pursued by many good causes. It’s not an indicator that recycling has lost demand, actually the opposite – councils in particular have got better and invested in their ability to recycle more waste more cost effectively.

Few charities still collect plastic bottle tops, as the practice is not as profitable today as in years gone by. Put caps back onto bottles after rinsing them out and recycle in your usual kerbside recycling collection.

Improving Plastic Recycling Collections

The widespread change in recycling bottle tops is a small example of the large strides in improving plastic recycling in the UK. Hopefully, the momentum will continue into the future, until all plastics can be accepted in normal domestic recycling services.

Plastic isn’t the best material for the environment, but it has got a huge amount of uses in daily life. If we can continue to re-use and recycle it, and get to a point where a tiny fraction is wasted, it will become much less of an ecological threat.

Liam Gifford

I'm Liam. I spent twenty four years on the bins in South Yorkshire and now spend my time on recycling projects. I created this site to use my knowledge of how the rounds work, and what people need to know about getting their wheelie bins emptied every week.

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