Although the system is complicated, with a few simple steps we could all be recycling more says Rae Ritchie
1. We aren’t recycling as much as we think
According to the latest government statistics, the recycling rate for household waste in the UK stands at just 46 per cent. No doubt this would be higher if the recycling system were less complicated and frustrating, but in the absence of widespread reform, we can learn to navigate it better.
2. Kerbside is not the only option
If an item can’t go in your kerbside collection, it isn’t necessarily destined for landfill instead. There will be other recycling options within your community, ranging from neighbourhood bins for textiles and shoes to large recycling centres for all sorts of waste. Your local authority website is a good starting-point for information, and take a look at terracycle.com, too. This company works with manufacturers to run recycling schemes for hard-to-process materials such as toothpaste tubes, with public and in-store collection points.
Among the more recent initiatives are soft plastic collection points in Sainsbury’s and Co-op stores (other supermarkets are running trials). These have the potential to dramatically increase recycling rates for plastics thanks to the wide range of items accepted, from toilet roll wrappers and plastic sauce sachets to crisp packets and sweet bags. Check out their websites for full details.
3. Some symbols give information, not advice
A 2020 study by the Centre for Social Innovation and Keep Britain Tidy declared ”Packaging labels are a source of significant confusion” and “The information people do encounter is often unreliable or incomplete”.
It doesn’t help that some of the most common symbols provide information but not guidance about what to do with the item. The three arrows Mobius Loop, for instance, indicates that an item can theoretically be recycled. The Green Dot (two interlocking green arrows within a circle) simply means that the manufacturer has made a financial contribution towards recycling in Europe.
4. The bigger, the better
Regardless of what you can include in your kerbside collection bin, remember that bigger is better. Why? When items move through the sorting process, they may be shaken vigorously or travel on narrow conveyor belts – meaning small pieces can be easily lost.
As a result, the national recycling campaign Recycle Now advises that with plastic bottles, “The lids can be put back on for recycling”. Similarly, “Scrunch kitchen foil, tub and pot lids and wrappers together to form a ball – the bigger the ball, the easier it is to recycle”. And don’t forget to rinse or wipe food residue and crumbs from the foil first. The same applies to jars, trays and other food packaging, too.
5. Every area is different
Local authorities use specialised industrial services to handle recycling. The services available differ in every area – which means the items you can include, and even the bins you use, varies from council to council.
Check out the guidance provided on your local authority’s website to get it right where you live. Pay particular attention to instructions for materials such as cardboard and different kinds of plastic. Is it yes to margarine tubs and yoghurt pots but no to black plastic trays and takeaway containers?
6. ‘Wish cycling’ is counterproductive
If you’re ever tempted to stick a prohibited item in your recycling bin anyway, don’t! Wishcycling, defined by the North London Waste Authority as “the practice of putting something in the recycling bin in the hope that it will be recycled, even though it might be unsuitable, contaminated or only partially recyclable”, is hugely counterproductive.
Rogue items can damage recycling equipment or contaminate an otherwise acceptable batch of materials – meaning the whole lot is rejected from the recycling process. Some councils have reported entire lorry loads of recycling being dumped because of such contamination.
7. A rummage can be revealing
While it may not be anyone’s idea of a good time, “A bin audit is a great way to take stock of what waste you could be avoiding, and improve your composting and recycling habits,” say the organisers of Plastic Free July. Examine your trash, paying attention to the most common item going to landfill. Is it something that you can reduce, reuse or recycle? If the latter, where can you recycle it?
Boosting our recycling rates won’t solve everything – we need significant action from governments and corporations for that. But our individual actions still count and recycling more will make a difference, so let’s do as much as we can.
8. A brief guide to recycling plastics
There are seven different groups of plastics. Each has different properties and different uses – and each is treated differently when it comes to recycling. Your local authority website will have details about what plastic items you can include in kerbside collections. Check out Terracycle and supermarket in-store schemes for everything else.
9. Reduce, reuse – and then recycle
It’s more than just a catchy slogan: the 3Rs are a hierarchy of instructions, intended to be followed in order. The first and most important step is to reduce the level of resources we consume, then reuse those materials as much as possible. Recycling follows only when the other two possibilities have been exhausted.
10. Retailers are stepping up more
There are a variety of in-store recycling programmes for items not typically accepted by local authorities, from the well-established (return used batteries to any store that sells them) to new schemes (drop empty medication blister packs at Superdrug).
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