The Confusing Art of Recycling

Recycling is one of the few environmentally friendly behaviours which has caught on, with nations all over the globe dedicatedly placing their sorted waste onto the kerbside. Once sat on the pavement, the bin becomes a very handy appliance, magically transporting our waste away. The confusion we had indoors of whether that yoghurt pot was recyclable and whether we should have separated that metal lid off the glass jar (yes you should) are soon gone, replaced with daydreams of our next holiday. While the recycling of glass and paper remains relatively straight forward, plastic poses a whole new puzzle, with 56% of us confused about our plastic wrapping and 51% debating over our takeaway coffee cups. So what is really going on with recycling?

In many countries such as the UK and America, waste collection is individually run by local authorities who decide on the best way to utilise funding and resources to get rid of our unwanted goods. In the UK, the difference between councils is astounding, with residents in the Isle of Wight being able to recycle up to 15 different types of plastic while other areas in England’s north fail to recycle just one. Until recently, in Cornwall, Tetrapak milk cartons had to be sent to landfill but just a quick hop over the border into Devon meant you could pack them off to the recycling centre. It’s no wonder we throw our packaging in a random bag and hope for the best. However, there are ways you can get clued up. Council websites list exactly which plastics can be collected in your area, while 99% of authorities collect common items such as water bottles and milk bottles. As many countries increasingly up their recycling targets, it’s worth keeping an eye out for new recycling guidelines in your area.

Knowing what we can recycle turns out to be pretty crucial as one lost item can contaminate a whole bag of recycling, meaning all of it is re-directed towards landfill! Contaminants are items that are put in the recycling but cannot be recycled, with common culprits being carrier bags, food-stained containers or ‘tanglers’ such as hoses and electrical cords which get stuck in the recycling machinery and clog the system. Often, we think recycling one wrong item will just mean someone more knowledgeable than us will sort it out, but this contamination costs time, making the whole process more expensive and produces a lower quality product. Shockingly, 1 in 4 items are contaminants. To help resolve this we can ensure all our recycling is washed before putting it out and swot up on our knowledge of what local councils can take. As a general rule, kitchen roll, non-paper gift wrap, greasy takeaway boxes, crisp packets and even compostable plastic cannot be recycled but surprisingly, empty aerosol deodorants and bleach bottles can be so long as the lid is attached.

Improving our recycling is one thing but generally cutting down on our waste seems to be the answer. As with most things, our recycling efficiency comes down to economics. Clear water bottles are most commonly recycled as they attract the highest prices, while our rainbow of other objects attract less attention as their colour cannot be removed. Black plastic in particular cannot be recycled as the automatic sorting system which uses infra-red light cannot see it, sending it straight to landfill which is why our plant pots and food trays are increasingly turning lighter shades. Our polystyrene chip boxes from Friday nights are also not recyclable because there is simply no market for them, as making these plastics from scratch is cheaper than sorting and cleaning our waste. In addition, many countries ship recycling abroad, a story often reaching news headlines with catastrophic images of rubbish overrunning rural villages. Shipping our less profitable recycling abroad means we can get away with a higher contamination rate while developing countries actually pay us for our waste as they gain valuable materials they would otherwise not be able to afford. Until recently, this was the status quo. Yet in 2018, China banned the importation of plastic waste with Malaysia, Vietnam and soon Thailand following suit as the social and environmental impacts are brought to light. This is creating huge problems in countries with overflowing mountains of rubbish with some councils in America now unable to pick up plastic recycling from the kerbside or even recycle it at all as they run out of money and capacity.

While this global problem seems far out of our reach, we can all make a tiny change which scales up to a large-scale shift in lifestyle. Many available plastic products are made of recycled materials such as bin bags and plant pots, while we can also support small initiatives such as the company turning chemical-filled cigarette butts into energy, with only 24 butts charging a phone for an hour! Reducing your consumption of plastic is beneficial, as recycled plastic often produces lower-grade products such as fleeces and carpets which in turn are no longer recyclable, meaning compared to metal, plastics’ useable life is relatively short. As well as testing our new abundance of zero waste shops, reusing what you have can reduce the load you carry out to the kerb, with egg boxes used to grow seedlings, old clothes used as cleaning rags, food pots used for bird feeders and flattened cardboard boxes used to prevent the build up of ice on windscreens. Don’t feel you are acting alone, as authorities are increasingly working to create a nationally coherent set of recycling rules while also taxing or banning products made from non-recycled plastic. Countries like Germany are leading the way with returnable takeaway coffee cups used all over cities as our green footsteps pave the way forward.

The next blog will hope to inspire you by sharing sustainability stories from around the globe while proving you don’t need money or status to make a difference.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair