Classifying plastics for import and export

How to classify plastics for import or export: guidance to using chapter 39 of the UK Trade Tariff and full list of exceptions.


This guide will help you to classify polymers and articles formed from such polymers known as plastics.

In common with many other commodities, where goods are not specifically mentioned elsewhere in the Tariff, they are classified under their constituent material - in this case it’s plastics, under chapter 39 of the Tariff. If, however, the item is mentioned elsewhere in the Tariff, such as a toy made from plastic, it should be classified under the appropriate heading.

Correctly classifying plastics and processed or finished plastic products is easier if you have an understanding of the basic chemistry of plastics and how the products are manufactured. This guide covers classifying plastics according to their polymer type and some specific plastic goods only covered in chapter 39, including:

  • polyethylene
  • polyurethane
  • polystyrene
  • plastic tubes and pipes
  • plastic floor coverings
  • plastic bathroom furnishings
  • plastic packaging materials
  • plastic tableware and kitchenware

This guide provides an outline of the basic chemistry related to polymers, a simple summary of manufacturing processes and practical tips on classifying specific finished or processed goods.

Find commodity codes and other measures applying to imports and exports by accessing the online UK Trade Tariff tool.

Quick reference table of heading codes

There are 2 broad categories for plastics and plastic articles covered in chapter 39:

  • polymers in primary form - these include liquids, pastes, blocks of irregular shapes, lumps, powders, granules and flakes, polymers in primary form are classified within headings 3901 to 3914
  • specific types of goods made from polymers (known as plastics) fall within chapter 39, plastic articles are classified within headings 3915 to 3926

Examples of some of the headings of chapter 39 are shown below:

Item Heading code
Polymers of ethylene in primary forms 3901
Polymers of propylene in primary forms 3902
Polymers of styrene in primary forms 3903
Polymers of vinyl chloride or other halogenated olefins in primary forms 3904
Polymers of vinyl acetate or of other vinyl esters and other vinyl polymers in primary forms 3905
Acrylic polymers in primary forms 3906
Polyacetals, other polyethers and epoxide resins, polycarbonates, alkyd resins, polyallyl esters and other polyesters in primary forms 3907
Polyamides in primary forms 3908
Amino-resins, phenolic resins and polyurethanes in primary forms 3909
Silicones in primary forms 3910
Waste, parings and scrap of plastics 3915
Tubes, pipes and hoses and fittings such as joints, elbows or flanges of plastic 3917
Floor coverings of plastics in rolls or tiles, wall or ceiling coverings of plastics 3918
Self-adhesive plates, sheets, film, foil, tape, strip and other flat shapes, of plastics, whether or not in rolls 3919
Baths, shower-baths, sinks, washbasins, bidets, lavatory pans, Seats and covers, flushing cisterns and similar sanitary ware, of plastics 3922
Articles for the conveyance or packing of goods, of plastics; stoppers, lids, caps and other closures, of plastics 3923
Tableware, kitchenware, other household articles and hygienic or toilet articles, of plastics 3924

For processed and finished items, it’s useful to know the composition details of the polymer and the manufacturing process. Remember that if the defining characteristic of the good is its manufacture from plastic, such as a plastic bottle or a plastic hose, it will be classified in chapter 39 of the Tariff.

Classifying polymers in primary forms

If you’re importing polymers in primary forms, it’s essential to know the chemical composition and what the predominant monomer is within the polymer.

The definition of ‘primary forms’ is:

  • liquids and pastes, including dispersions (ie emulsions and suspensions) and solutions
  • blocks or irregular shape, lumps, powders (including moulding powders), granules, flakes and similar bulk forms

Polymers are large molecules made from monomers, and their constituent parts are called monomeric units. A monomer is a molecule or compound, usually containing carbon, which is capable of conversion to polymers, synthetic resins or elastomers by combination with itself or other similar molecules or compounds.

There are many different polymers that exhibit different characteristics and properties and are used for different purposes. For example, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is commonly used in the building industry for use in double glazing frames. Polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET) are commonly used in the manufacture of bottles.

To correctly classify your polymers in primary forms, you need to identify the predominant monomer:

  • polymers of ethylene (heading 3901)
  • polymers of propylene (heading 3902)
  • polymers of styrene (heading 3903)
  • polymers of vinyl chloride or other halogenated olefins (heading 3904)
  • polymers of vinyl acetate or of other vinyl esters and other vinyl polymers (heading 3905)
  • acrylic polymers (heading 3906)
  • polyacetals, other polyethers and epoxide resins, polycarbonates, alkyd resins, polyallyl esters and other polyesters (heading 3907)
  • polyamides (heading 3908)
  • amino-resins, phenolic resins and polyurethanes (heading 3909)
  • silicones (heading 3910)
  • petroleum resins, coumarone-indene resins, polyterpenes, polysulphides, polysulphones (heading 3911)

Copolymers are produced by the simultaneous polymerisation of 2 or more dissimilar monomers. They contain more than one type or repeat of monomeric unit. For example, the copolymer ethylene-vinyl acetate is created by polymerising ethylene and vinyl acetate.

In Tariff classification, the term ‘copolymer’ covers all polymers in which no single monomer contributes 95% or more by weight to the total polymer content.

However, they are produced, copolymers - including co-polycondensates, co-polyaddition products, block copolymers and graft copolymers - are classified under the heading code covering the predominant comonomer. If no comonomer predominates, you should classify the goods in the heading code which is last in numerical order that is relevant to each of the comonomers.

Chemically modified polymers, where only appendages to the main polymer chain have been changed by chemical reaction, are classified under the heading code for the unmodified polymer.

Classifying processed or finished products

When classifying processed or finished plastic products, it’s helpful to know as much about them as possible, including the:

  • function or role of the goods
  • polymer that they are made from
  • method of manufacture

The function or role of the goods is essential to classifying them correctly. The composition and method of manufacture may also be required to classify the goods correctly, although this is not always the case. However, it’s a very good idea to have all this information to hand as it will speed the classification process for you.

Manufacturing techniques

Polymers in primary forms are processed using 3 different processes to create finished products:

  • injection moulding is used to form plastics into hollow shapes - for example, bottles and containers, toys or petrol tanks
  • compression moulding is used to form specific shapes using a mould - for example, knobs and handles for saucepans, irons or cookers or electrical fittings such as plugs, sockets and lamp fittings
  • extrusion creates shapes by forcing material through a metal forming die - for example, film, sheet, rods, profile shapes, tubes or pipes

Classifying specific types of finished or processed goods

If waste, parings and scrap (heading code 3915) have been transformed into a primary form, they should be classified as such, using the appropriate heading code between 3901 and 3914.

When classifying tubes, pipes and hoses (heading code 3917), you should bear in mind that the definition covers all hollow products, whether semi-manufactured or finished, that are of a kind generally used for moving gases or liquids, such as ribbed garden hoses, perforated tubes or lay-flat tubing. However, if the goods have an internal cross-section that is not round, oval, rectangular (in which the length does not exceed 1.5 times the width) or in the shape of a regular polygon, they’re not to be regarded as tubes, pipes and hoses but as profile shapes.

To classify wall or ceiling coverings made of plastic (heading code 3918), they must be in rolls, of a width not less than 45 centimetres, suitable for wall or ceiling decoration, consisting of plastics fixed permanently on a backing of any material other than paper, the layer of plastics (on the face side) being grained, embossed, coloured, design-printed or otherwise decorated. This is to differentiate them from some wallpapers.

There are very specific products covered under builders’ ware of plastic (heading code 3925).

This heading code specifically covers:

  • reservoirs, tanks (including septic tanks), vats and similar containers, of a capacity exceeding 300 litres
  • structural elements used in floors, walls or partitions, and ceilings or roofs
  • gutters and gutter fittings
  • doors, windows and their frames, and thresholds for doors
  • balconies, balustrades, fencing, gates and similar barriers
  • shutters, blinds (including Venetian blinds) and similar articles and parts and fittings thereof
  • large-scale shelving for assembly and permanent installation, for example in shops, workshops and warehouses
  • ornamental architectural features, for example flutings, cupolas and dovecotes
  • fittings and mountings intended for permanent installation in or on doors, windows, staircases, walls or other parts of buildings - for example knobs, handles, hooks, brackets, towel rails, switch-plates and other protective plates

In some cases, textiles may be added to plastic products to provide reinforcement. If the plastic is cellular and has been covered on one face only with the textile fabric, you should classify it under the appropriate heading code in chapter 39. If the plastic is covered on both faces, the goods should be classified as a textile, using the appropriate heading code in chapter 59.

Common abbreviations for plastics and polymers

Abbreviation Item
ABS Acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene
BDS Butadiene-styrene block copolymer
CA Cellulose acetate
CB Cellulose butyrate
CE Cellulose/cellophane
EVA Ethylene-vinyl acetate
GPPS General-purpose polystyrene
GRP Glass-reinforced plastic
HDPE High-density polyethylene
HIPS High-impact polystyrene (toughened polystyrene)
LDPE Low-density polyethylene
LLDPE Linear Low-density polyethylene
MF Melamine formaldehyde
OPP Orientated polypropylene
PA Polyamide (nylon)
PA 6 Nylon 6
PA 6 6 Nylon 6 6
PA 4 6 Nylon 4 6
PA 6 10 Nylon 6 10
PA 11 Nylon 11
PA 12 Nylon 12
PBT Polybutylene terephthalate
PC Polycarbonate
PE Polyethylene
PET Polyethylene terephthalate

What’s not covered in chapter 39

Goods are only classified under their constituent materials when they are not specifically referred to elsewhere in the Tariff. There is a multitude of goods made from plastics that are specifically covered elsewhere in the Tariff, for example:

  • textiles and textile articles are covered in Section XI - for example knitted or woven polyester or nylon articles
  • footwear, headgear, umbrellas, walking sticks, whips or riding crops are covered in Section XII
  • imitation jewellery
  • machines and mechanical or electrical appliances, parts of aircraft or vehicles are covered in Section XVII
  • optical, photographic, cinematographic, measuring, checking, precision, medical or surgical instruments, clocks and watches, musical instruments and accessories are covered in Section XVIII
  • furniture, lamps and lighting fittings, illuminated signs or prefabricated buildings are covered in chapter 94
  • toys, games and sports requisites are covered in chapter 95
  • brushes, buttons, slide fasteners, combs, mouthpieces or stems for smoking pipes, cigarette holders, pens or propelling pencils are covered in chapter 96
  • plastics that have been printed with motifs, text or pictures that define the goods (apart from floor, wall or ceiling coverings) are covered in chapter 49

Finished and processed products

It’s useful to consider if the fact it is made from a plastic is its defining characteristic when you classify a product made from plastics.

As a general rule of thumb, if the defining characteristic is that a product is made of plastic, you will find it in chapter 39.

For example, a plastic bottle or floorcovering is classified under this chapter. However, spectacle frames which happen to be made of plastic are classified elsewhere, as the fact they are spectacle frames is the defining factor, not their construction from plastic.

Statuettes and other ornamental articles for the home and garden consisting of rock powder (for example calcium carbonate), plastic, and sometimes a small amount of other additives are classified within chapter 39 when the plastic gives the articles their essential character. The rock powder in this case acts as the filler material with the plastic supplying the defining characteristic for the product.

General Interpretive Rules

In common with many commodities, the General Interpretive Rules apply to plastics.

Where goods are presented as sets that comprise 2 or more separate articles that may fall under different classification codes, they should be classified under the code that represents the primary function of the set. To qualify as a set, the items must be presented together and be clearly complementary.

Further information

The free on-line UK Trade Tariff is available for your use to look up classification codes. This offers easy access to tariff information by providing commodity code and duty rate listings together with a search engine to facilitate enquiries and allow self-service to commodity code information.

If after visiting this site you’re unable to self-assess your products, you can request additional support by sending a request by email to

Please ensure that one item only is detailed per email and that the request includes the following type of information, so that we can deal with your enquiry efficiently:

  • what the product is
  • what it is made of, if made or more than one material please explain the breakdown of the materials
  • what it is used for
  • how the product works/functions
  • how it is presented/packaged

Additionally detailed below is some additional information that is required on certain products.

  • for footwear – please include the type (for example shoe, boot, slipper), upper material details, outer sole material details, the heel height and the purpose for men or woman
  • for food – please include precise composition details by percentage weight of all the ingredients to 100% and the method of manufacture or process undergone, for example fresh, frozen, dried, further prepared/preserved
  • for chemicals – please include the Chemical Abstracts Service Number, whether the product is a liquid/powder/solid and include the % ingredients
  • for textiles – please include the material composition, how it is constructed (knitted/woven) and the name of fabric
  • for vehicles – please include the age, the engine type (petrol or diesel), the engine size, whether the vehicle is new or used, whether the vehicle is over 30 years old and whether it is in its original condition. Is the vehicle going to be for everyday use?

A classification officer will then email a response back to you providing you with non-legally binding classification advice based on the information you have supplied.

Published 3 August 2012
Last updated 26 April 2017 + show all updates
  1. The finished and processed products section has been updated.
  2. The further information section has been updated to show the change of contact details.
  3. First published.