When you put out your recycling you probably feel some satisfaction at doing your bit (and so you should!) But do you understand what happens to it when it’s collected?
How do you know that what you’ve put in the recycling will indeed be recycled? Do you often ponder over certain items; not knowing whether to put them in the recycling, or send straight to landfill? Are you making mistakes that could mean your recyclables end up being sent to landfill?
If you’re uncertain about recycling, you are not alone. Research by Wrap, which is funded by eight UK Government bodies and departments, identified a “lack of knowledge or confusion”, in relation to recycling. Their survey of more than 2,000 households found that 89 per cent of respondents admitted ‘including items in their recycling which are not recyclable‘!
In the upcoming editions, we’ll be looking at how the UK recycling system will need to change now that China has closed the door on our recycling exports. We’ll also be doing a thorough examination and research piece on the future of plastics, as part of our #PointlessPlastics campaign. But for now, here are a few tips to help you ensure that your everyday recycling does indeed end up being recycled!
Know your services!
In the UK there are wide-ranging variations in what regional recycling services are available, so the first thing we should all do is familiarise ourselves with our local kerbside collection, and investigate what other recycling services are available in our area.
Local council websites will have guidelines for what kerbside collections do and do not cover, advice for ensuring maximum recycling and minimum landfill, and a directory of other local services including recycling centres, and recycling services at superstores or other local businesses.
This handy post-code checker lists the different council services that you should have access to, and the materials covered under each category of recyclable collection. Similarly, product manufacturers often provide advice on regional recycling provision for their products. For example, you can find advice and information from Tetra Pak, here.
Separation and contamination
Once you have got to know your local services, the next step is to remember the key-words: SEPARATION and CONTAMINATION. The better the SEPARATION of waste and different recyclable materials at source, and the less CONTAMINATION with non recyclable materials, the more gets actually recycled.
In order to avoid contamination, you can start with a few simple rules:
- Pour liquids out
- Wash containers
- Keep food out
Food containers will need to be checked for residue, but they can usually simply be wiped or rinsed to ensure that they a ready to be sent for recycling. If there is food dried into the container you will need to soak and wash it to ensure it is recyclable.
Some materials, like cardboard, can’t really be washed clean of grease or food residue; and chances are that the recycling centre will not have the resources to separate the contaminated from the clean materials. So it’s up to you to do the separating.
With pizza boxes, for example, only the outer packaging, if clean, should be sent for recycling. Never the layer the pizza sits on. If a pizza box is soiled, tear out the contaminated part and recycle the rest.
Jars, squeezy bottles, toothpaste tubes, and other receptacles will often need to be rinsed out. Familiarise yourself with the guidelines for your local services to avoid contamination.
On the plus side, preparing most containers doesn’t require much effort. A rinse or a quick wipe to remove residues, should be enough. You don’t need to go as far as putting glass or plastic trays into the dishwasher – rinse or wipe clean and save your energy bill!
Separate and squash to save space
Once you’ve made sure that materials are not contaminated, remove and separate parts that are obviously different materials. This is more important for items containing plastic than it is for glass or tin. Remove the plastic windows in cardboard packaging as the card is recyclable but the plastic isn’t!
Unless required to do so by your local recycling service, do not put your recyclables into plastic bags. This creates more work at the recycling centre, and can result in the bags and all of their contents being sent to landfill on the assumption that they will have been contaminated.
Squash cans, and expel as much air as poss from plastic bottles. Breakdown and flatten cardboard containers so that they take up less space.
Certain items require special treatment, or are actually better send straight to landfill because they biodegrade. Did you know…?
Anything with the 04 recycling symbol is the material used for plastic bags. Although the harder plastic (milk bottles, plastic tubes) are collected, lower-density material such as bags can’t be taken by most of the UK council collections but CAN be recycled. Most supermarkets will have a collection point for low density plastic bags, often at the store exits. Recycling centres can also be used to divert these from landfill.
Soiled paper items
No tissue paper of any kind needs to be sent for recycling… it’s compostable and can be treated as landfill waste.
Black food containers
Almost all black food containers will have the recycling symbol on the outer packaging, however, few will tell you the whole truth about how to recycle them.
Unfortunately, the majority of black plastic packaging is coloured using pigments that cannot be detected by the optical sorting systems widely used in plastics recycling. As such, black plastic packaging commonly ends up being disposed of in landfill or recycled into lower value materials where polymer sorting is not required. In fact, every year in the UK, 3.5 million tonnes of plastics go to landfill because the pigment used in packaging cannot be detected by recycling sorters.
Whilst groups like WRAP and their partners have been working to improve the recyclability of black plastic, the answer in the short-term is to try to buy products that are in food trays of a different colour or material.
Happily, the situation around black plastic recycling does appear to be changing. In 2017 a cross-industry group of UK packaging manufacturers, packers, retailers, brands, and material reprocessors agreed a ‘roadmap’ to ensure the sustainable recycling of all black plastic packaging by the end of 2018. Good news!
Never put your waste batteries in the bin. As most local recycling collections won’t cover batteries, check this handy guide and search tool from Recycle Now. You’ll also find that many charities will take them as they can get money back for sending them to collection centres, and some supermarkets do too, so check out your local services.
Where possible, reduce the need for recycling batteries by purchasing rechargeable batteries. These can be recycled at end of life anyway, so find a responsible recycling point. Alternatively, try to buy appliances that use renewable energy: a wind-up radio or torch, dynamo bicycle lights or a solar powered calculator.
Most councils can now accept aerosols with your metals recycling… but don’t crush them! If an aerosol still has something in it, they may be classed as household hazardous waste and should ideally be taken to a Recycling Centre. Again, check the criteria for your local services!
Foil and cling-film
Clean household foil and aluminium trays are widely recycled. To check if you can recycle foil at home or to find out where your nearest recycling facilities are, use Recycle Now’s handy recycling locator tool.
Cling film is often soiled with food waste that would be hard to clean and can jam recycling sorters, so overall it’s advisable to try and avoid it. The answer… use reusable food containers as much as is possible. Alternatives to cling-film and foil include beeswax wrap that can be washed and reused.
Baco have also produced a BioWrap cling film and a Biodegradable foil. You can find product info here. But unfortunately, we can’t find sufficient detail to be able to vouch for these products ourselves.
If you have a compost at home, you may have noticed bits of teabag are left after several months. That’s because many contain polypropylene either in the fibres or to heat seal the bag. Moral Fibres have looked in some detail at the tea-bags used by different brands. But the most simple solution if you don’t want to switch away from your favourite tea, is to switch to loose-leaf tea.
It’s important to get to know the requirements of your local recycling provision in order to make sure that what you send for recycling do not end up going to landfill, or worse still contaminating a whole load of otherwise recyclable materials.
Where you can, look out for the alternatives on the shelves… buy unpackaged produce, and purchase some lightweight drawstring or mesh bags to go along with your bags for life, so you won’t have to use the clear plastic bags in the fruit and veg sections.
It can be complicated, but hopefully this guide will make those recycling conundrums just a little bit easier, and you’ll know that you’re doing that little bit extra to help save the planet!
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