Becoming a Recycling Pro: Are You Nailing It?

Becoming a Recycling Pro: Are You Nailing It?

We are all trying our best to reduce, reuse and recycle in our bid to protect our planet. But messaging around recycling can be confusing. With labels asking us to please recycle, or simply saying “recyclable”, “compostable”, “biodegradable” it can be hard to know what to do with all those materials. Does compostable also mean recyclable? No. Does recyclable mean it can be put in your home recycling bin? Again, sadly not.

Even with the best intentions many of us remain confused about what to do and can make mistakes when it comes to recycling correctly.

This is our recycling guide. A collection of little rules to help when it comes to your home recycling. Some guidance on what is and is not recyclable. Some dos and don’ts to help you make more sense of it all.

Our 5 recycling rules of thumb

1. Say no to plastic bags.
Plastic bags can cause a bit of a nightmare at recycling facilities as they can get caught up in the machinery. They may be technically recyclable but should go to bigger drop off facilities like those near supermarkets, rather than in your home recycling bin. This also applies to any other thinner “technically recyclable” problematic plastics such as sandwich bags or bubble wrap.

2. Size matters.
Is it smaller than a credit card? Yes? Then think twice before popping it into your home recycling bin. Such small items are too small for recycling machinery to sort through correctly and can jam up the recycling equipment. So, what should you do with these small recyclables? Make them bigger by grouping them. For instance, plastic bottle caps should be attached to the plastic bottle to ensure they don’t cause problems. Similarly small bits of foil can be rolled up with others until there is a large enough piece to recycle.

3. Think clean and dry.
Leftover cheese and toppings on that pizza box? Tomato sauce left on that single use plastic plate? Then it has to go in the rubbish bin and not the recycling. This is why all that single use packaging that says “please recycle” is such a problem – even if the material was initially recyclable, once it is covered with food bits it can no longer be recycled.

4. Don’t wishcycle!
Most of us are guilty of this at some point. Popping something into the recycling that we “hope” is recyclable. Don’t do it. It can contaminate truly recyclable materials and result in more going to landfill. Instead, do your homework and see if it is truly recyclable and whether it can be put in your home recycling bin or needs to go to a local recycling facility to be properly treated. Most local councils will have advice on their website to share what can and can not be safely recycled at the roadside – anything else needs to go to a special recycling centre or in the rubbish bin if it can’t be recycled.

5. Battery power.
Batteries are commonly disposed of in the incorrect way. They can not be put in your home recycling bin. They also should not be put in your home rubbish bin either. This is due to the harmful chemicals that are inside batteries. However, most councils will have dedicated battery recycling points at their local recycling depot – so keep all those used batteries together in a jar and drop them off next time you go.

So how do we find out what we can safely recycled at home in the UK?

Recycling in the UK is devolved to local councils. This means what you can actually put in your recycling bin will depend on where you live. It is always best to check with your local council what materials they will accept in your home recycling bin and what will need to be sorted and taken to a specialist recycling point to ensure it gets correctly recycled.


single use plastic waste

According to The Big Plastic count nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging are thrown away by UK households every year, and just 12% recycled in the UK. That means 88% our household waste is being burnt, buried and dumped overseas. It is time to do something about that.

According to the UN Environment programme, less than 10%  of the 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste generated globally so far has been recycled.

Plastics are made up of long chains (polymers) of repeating units of atoms (monomers). These chains layer over each – imagine strands of pearls placed on top of each other.

There are many different types of plastics – it is not just one material. Some are easier to recycle than others. Understanding the plastics that we use in our day to day lives and the recycling symbols is a good place to start. Combining that knowledge with our local area restrictions on which we can recycle at home and which we need to be more careful with can lead to us having more success in our recycling.

 Plastics recycling guide

Plastic is not endlessly recyclable.

Plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times.

Each time you recycle plastic the polymer strands that form it are cut shorter. Most plastics can only be recycled 2-3 times before the quality degrades to such a point that they can no longer be recycled. Furthermore, each time plastic is recycled, new “virgin” material is added to improve the quality of the material. Something to think about next time you see something made from recycled plastic.

Plastic recycling dos and don’ts:

Don’t put compostable plastics into your recycling. If they are home compostable, they can be put on your compost heap (if you have one). However most compostable plastics require specialist commercial composting facilities, so unless the manufacturer has a take back scheme to get those correctly composted, they should be placed in the rubbish bin.
• Do check for specific instructions with bioplastics to see whether or not they can be popped into your recycling bin or if the company has a take back scheme
• Don’t put single use coffee cups in the recycling – they need to go to a specialist facility so either a special collection point or in the rubbish bin
• Do squash any plastic bottles for recycling – it makes them take up less space and can stop them rolling off sorting conveyors at recycling facilities. Also remember to put the bottle lids back on to make sure they also get correctly recycled.
• Don’t recycle PVC cling films. If you really need to buy cling film, try to look for PVC-free options at the supermarket.
• Do recycle coloured plastic food packaging – check with local recycling service but things are getting better for sorting and correctly recycling darker plastics
• Do check with your local council for other plastic waste. From plant pots to children’s toys there are a range of plastic items you may have a desire to recycle. Some may be best reused as they won’t be able to be recycled while others may be able to be recycled at special recycling collection points.

Aiming to reduce our use of single use plastics is the best way to protect the planet against plastic pollution.  

Ways to reduce your plastic use:

 Banish the plastic water bottle. Take your reusable bottle and fill it up on the go.
 Refuse single use coffee cups. Take a reusable coffee cup for that caffeine hit on the go.
 Say no to single use plastic bags and carry a tote or two with you.
 Channel those school days with a lunchbox filled with goodies.
 Try swapping out your bottled toiletries for plastic free bars or refills from your nearest refill store.
 Discover your local greengrocer – they will have more fruit and veggies available without it being wrapped in plastic.
 Swap out that cling film for a set of beeswax wraps to keep your opened food fresh for longer without the single use plastic.


metal waste

Steel is the most recycled metal in the UK, followed by aluminium and copper.  Both aluminium and stainless steel are infinitely 100% recyclable and have very high recycling rates here in the UK (74.8% and 76.4% respectively)

Drinks cans and food cans are relatively easy to recycle. We recycle over 2.5 billion cans in the UK every year.

As they are endlessly recyclable without degradation of material quality, they are a great circular material.

Recycling metals can save significant amounts of energy and water usage. For example, recycling one aluminium can saves enough energy to run a set of Christmas tree lights for two hours!

One thing to consider is whether your metal items may have hidden nasties. As we have discussed before, almost all steel insulated bottles on the market are still sealed with toxic lead solder. At end-of-life this can result in lead-leaching into the environment. Despite this, almost all of these products will be labelled as fully recyclable – the stainless steel in them certainly is but this toxic sealant should be treated more cautiously. It is a problem most people still remain unaware of but should definitely consider. Check the company’s website and if it doesn’t explicitly say that it is a lead free brand the chances are it contains a lead solder and should be treated carefully at end-of-life. Use lead free insulated bottles to avoid this headache when they reach the end of their life.

Metal recycling dos and don’ts:

Do check for hidden nasties before recycling steel insulated bottles – steel is recyclable, but lead contaminants may cause harm to the environment.
• Don’t put batteries in your home recycling bin. They can explode and cause fires and pose a serious risk for people – instead find a dedicated battery recycling point and drop off your old batteries there.
• Do give your cans a good clean before putting in the recycling bin to get rid of any food contamination.
• Do make small bits of metal bigger – from scrunching small bits of metal foil together to grouping metal lids together, it stops them jamming recycling machines and allows them to be more easily sorted.


glass recycling point with glass bottles on the ground

Glass is endlessly recyclable making it a great circular material. Re-melting glass into new glass products has lower CO2 footprint than making virgin glass.

In the UK, we have a high recycling collection rate of 76.5% for glass – one of the highest of any of the recyclable materials.

Check with local councils to see if you can recycle glass bottles and jars in your home recycling bin. Some councils will have the full capability to allow you to put these straight in your bin at home. Others will need you to drop them at a dedicated recycling point, usually near supermarkets or the local tip.

Many glass bottles and jars are easy to recycle. But there are always exceptions to the rule.

Glass recycling dos and don’ts:

Do reuse glass jars and containers wherever possible – much more energy efficient than recycling them into something else.
• Don’t recycle broken glass – it can cause injury to the people working at recycling facilities.
• Do put your lids back on glass jars and containers before recycling them – the rules for lids can change depending on where you live but can be removed at sorting facilities if needed.
• Don’t recycle Pyrex dishes – this glass is specially treated glass to withstand higher temperatures and as such can’t be recycled in the same way as glass bottles.
• Do clean out your glass jars and containers before putting them in the recycling.
• Don’t recycle drinking glasses – they need to be placed in your rubbish bin. If glasses are in good condition, consider donating them to a local charity shop instead.


cardboard recycling stack

Paper has a high recycling rate here in the UK, with 70.6% currently collected correctly for recycling.

Paper, like plastic, has a limit on the number of times in can be recycled before the fibres are simply too short. When it is getting to the end of possible uses, recycled toilet paper can be a great end-of-life use.

Remember some things you may consider as paper may actually be multi-material products. One that springs to mind is that pesky single use coffee cup. Single use coffee cups are not just made from paper, they also have a plastic lining on the inside. This makes them difficult to recycle as they can’t be treated simply as paper or as plastic. They need to be sent to a specialist recycling facility which is able to separate the paper fibres from the plastic lining.

Why can’t oily card or paper be recycled? It is due to the way paper products are recycled. They are mulched and mixed with water to form a slurry. Any grease present leads to oil forming on top of the slurry. The paper fibres may not be separated from the oils. When the water is removed to form new paper it can be left with spots and holes, leaving it in an unusable state.

Paper recycling dos and don’ts:

Don’t put single use coffee cups in the recycling. They need to be sent to specific facilities for processing. As such these generally need to go into the rubbish bin (or into a specialist collection point to be correctly processed).
• Do recycle envelopes with plastic windows and tissue boxes – the plastic film can be separated from the paper at the recycling facility.
• Do recycle pizza boxes so long as they are clean. If there are grease marks and bits of cheese stuck to the box, tear off the clean parts and only recycle those, throwing the food contaminated parts in the bin.

Food Waste

2 pears with hearts cut into them

With ever rising prices food waste is definitely one we need to think about and discuss ways of reducing as well as recycling.

According to Our World in Data, food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put this in context: that is around three times the global emissions from aviation. So, your food waste could be having a bigger effect on your carbon footprint than your annual holiday to the Algarve.

Around ½ English councils offer food waste recycling collections. Our advice is to check with your local council as to what is available. If they offer food waste caddies, then get started on using one. Worried this may cause to smelly wafts from the corner of the kitchen? Worry not. We had the same concerns when we started using our food caddy years ago and it really is not that bad (unless you have a significant kipper habit). Just be sure to use a compostable liner – this will be removed at the composting facility but will ensure your food waste is free of other contaminants.

Tips to help you reduce your food waste:

Write a shopping list for your weekly food and stick to it – reduce those unnecessary impulse buys and only buy what you will use.
• Use common sense when it comes to best before dates (if you buy your fruit and veg loose, they don’t have those anyway).
• Keep fruit and veggies in the fridge to help them last longer.
• Wrap cut fruit and veggies in beeswax wraps to help them last longer.

Further reading:

World Economic Forum: The New Plastics Economy
Which? How to recycle in the UK
Clear on Plastics by Wrap
The Big Plastic Count
Our World in data: Plastic pollution
National Geographic: Things you didn’t know about plastics and recycling
Earthday org:7 tips to recycle better
USA Environment Protection Agency: how do I recycle common recyclables

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1. What is a circular economy?
2. How much plastic are you eating?
3. Why single use coffee cups can’t be recycled?
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