How to actually recycle your rubbish

Written by Lori Campbell on 5th Jun 2019

Every two hours, the UK produces enough waste to fill the Royal Albert Hall – but around 80 per cent of what we throw in our rubbish bins COULD have been recycled.

A shocking five out of every six glass bottles sold are thrown in rubbish bins, even though glass is 100 per cent recyclable and bottles can be endlessly recycled. And if we recycled every single can in the UK, we could get rid of 14 million dustbins!

Many of us are guilty of throwing food waste in the bin. Each year, the average household rubbish bin contains enough unconverted energy for around 3,500 showers or 5,000 hours of television.

And when we DO recycle, we often get it wrong. Not recycling properly (such as putting dirty or the wrong type of packaging in our green bins) can lead to an entire TRUCK LOAD of recycling ending up in landfill.

With a general lack of public awareness around recycling, and different rules in different areas, the whole process can be seriously confusing. Here are eight easy steps to improving your recycling:


1. Wash your recycling

Packaging that is heavily contaminated with food makes the recycling process much less efficient. You should ensure that everything that goes into your bins is as clean as possible.

Cardboard pizza boxes should never go into your recycling because the grease has spoiled the fibres too much.

You don’t need to get it all sparkling, but a half-full yoghurt pot or baked bean tin, for example, risks contaminating porous materials such as paper and card in the same recycling load and will render it all unrecyclable.


2. Sort your recycling properly 

Each council has different rules on how you should sort your recycling. You can check what your local council accepts here.

Be aware of what can and can’t go into your recycling bin. For example, plastic windows on paper envelopes are not usually a problem because paper mills can remove them during the manufacturing process. However, padded envelopes are rarely accepted for recycling because they are made of a mixture of paper, plastic and other filler materials. Styrofoam, take-out food containers and shiny wrapping paper are also non-recyclable.

Although kitchen roll, napkins, paper plates, and tissues are all made from paper, they are never recyclable. They usually come into contact with food wastes, greases, and possibly bodily fluids and are not able to be cleaned during the recycling process. They should therefore not be mixed with other ‘clean’ paper waste like magazines and copy paper. Even unused napkins and plates cannot be recycled – but tissue boxes and paper towel rolls can. Most food wrappers are not recyclable.


3. Recycle your food waste separately

Never throw food in the rubbish bin. Food that is taken to landfill sites isn’t exposed to enough oxygen to allow it to biodegrade naturally, so instead it rots and decays – which releases methane into the air.

Methane is said to be much more harmful to the planet than carbon dioxide, and food waste is one of the main factors behind rising greenhouse gas levels. Food should go into a separate composting bin. Ensuring that your unused food is recycled allows the gases to be captured and converted into green energy and natural fertilisers.


4. Check the labels

Packaging labels and recycling symbols now appear on lots of everyday items. They are designed to help us identify how different types of packaging can be recycled. You can check what they mean here.

The symbol ‘Not Currently Recycled’ often appears on packaging – but confusingly, it does not necessarily mean it cannot be recycled.

Instead, it means that fewer than 20 per cent of local authorities cannot recycle that particular packaging. Check whether your council can, or if there are any alternatives local to you.

Crisp packets are often not accepted by councils because they are made from metallised plastic film. But recycling firm Terracycle, for example, is able to recycle crisp and confectionary packets and wrapping if they are dropped off at a participating location. These are usually in schools but also at leisure centres, shops and even some home addresses. Walkers can also recycle its crisp packets if you return them.


5. Coffee cups are usually NOT recyclable

Coffee cups are made from mixing together paper and plastic. The materials are difficult to separate after they have been combined, and there are currently only a small number of specialist plants in the UK able to process them.

Some coffee chains are recycling cups in store so it is worth checking whether you should return your cups. Others are already starting to use fully-compostable takeaway cups.


6. Screw lids back on

Screw plastic lids back on to their bottles and push straws back into cartons before recycling. On their own they are too small to make it through most recycling sorting machines (most will reject anything narrower than 40mm). However, the advice can vary depending on what your local authority collects.


7. Squash plastic bottles

Squashing plastic bottles before you put them out for recycling not only saves space (reducing their carbon footprint), it also stops them from rolling off the sorting machine conveyor belts.


8. Recycle plastic bags and plastic film at the supermarket

Take recyclable plastic film and leftover carrier bags back to recycling points at big supermarkets. This could increase the amount of supermarket packaging you recycle by up to 10 per cent. NEVER tie your recycling in plastic bags, or put plastic bags into your recycling bins.


9. Reduce your plastic use

Ultimately, the most powerful thing we can all do to help the environment is to reduce the packaging we consume, especially the amount of plastic that we use. Most plastic can’t actually be recycled – in-fact only 8 per cent of plastic has ever has been recycled. Historically, our plastic trash has simply been shipped to Asia and then dumped in the ocean where we now have five gargantuan garbage patches choking our sea-life. The largest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is four times the size of France.

For hints and tips to help you reduce your plastic use, click here.


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