Do you really know what happens to your recycling?

Recycling is one of the easiest things we can do to help the environment. Or so we think. Most of us believe our recycled rubbish is collected, melted

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Recycling is one of the easiest things we can do to help the environment. Or so we think. Most of us believe our recycled rubbish is collected, melted and repurposed into something brand new, thus avoiding landfill, where our litter would release greenhouse gases into the air, or be blown into the ocean and cause pollution. To some extent, this is true, but unfortunately there are limitations when it comes to what the UK’s waste industry is capable of. In fact, many of your recyclables may go on an entirely different journey from the one you expect.

What are the main recycling issues?

1.     Waste contamination

The problems start as soon as we put things into our bins. Waste can only be recycled if it is uncontaminated, which means everything has to be in the correct bin, with no non-recyclable products. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen, and UK councils actually sent 500,000 tonnes of recycling to landfill in 2019 due to contamination.


It would be easy to blame Brits for breaking the rules, but research shows that there is a lot of misinformation and uncertainty out there. A 2018 study of 2,000 adults revealed that 56% were confused about recycling protocols, with one third unsure how to dispose of empty crisp packets, and one in ten not knowing what to do with glass and cardboard boxes. “There appears to be a great deal of confusion as to what can and cannot be recycled,” said Andrew Barnetson from Beyond the Box, which led the study. ”As a result, there could be a huge amount of recyclable items unknowingly being sent to landfill.”

How can you help?

Now you’re aware of this reality, you can take more care in preventing contamination. As London-based recycling company Bywaters notes: “If dry mixed recycling (cardboard, paper, glass and plastic) gets wet, it can no longer be recycled as DMR, so you will need to store it with your non-recyclable waste.” This means you have to rinse and dry food containers, and throw away anything that can’t be properly cleaned, like a greasy pizza box. You can also use the ‘What To Do With…’ and ‘Local Recycling’ features on the Recycle Now website to check what items are recyclable at home and in your local area.


2.     International disposal

Much of the UK’s waste is sent abroad to countries like Malaysia, Turkey and Indonesia for recycling. And once it reaches its destination, there’s no guarantee that it will actually be recycled. For example, a BBC investigation discovered that a great deal of Britain’s plastic waste had been dumped and burned on the side of the road in Turkey. This is usually the fate of poor quality or badly sorted waste that ends up at backstreet recycling plants. Elsewhere, a Greenpeace Unearthed investigation found copious amounts of British and European waste in illegal Malaysian dumps.


On top of this, problems manifest when we are unable to export our waste abroad. For example, China was once the main importer of plastic waste, but this changed in 2018 when it announced it would no longer accept plastic unless it was 99.5% pure. This has had a real impact on recycling in the UK and elsewhere around the world. “Globally more plastics are now ending up in landfills, incinerators, or likely littering the environment as rising costs to haul away recyclable materials increasingly render the practice unprofitable,” Cheryl Katz wrote for Yale Environment 360, noting that an additional half a million-plus tonnes of plastics and other household rubbish was burned in England in 2018.

How can you help?

While you can’t directly impact a nation’s commitment to recycling, you can help cut down the amount of waste there is to dispose of by following the three R’s: reduce, reuse, recycle. This means cutting down consumption and switching to multi-use items wherever possible. For example, only buying what you need, choosing products with less packaging, selling or donating things you no longer want, and picking items you can reuse like bottles instead of cans, and rechargeable batteries.

3.    The plastic problem

In addition to the issues caused by China’s decision to stop importing plastic, there is an innate problem in how plastic is recycled in the first place. “Recycling aluminium, say, is straightforward, profitable and environmentally sound: making a can from recycled aluminium reduces its carbon footprint by up to 95%,” explains The Guardian reporter Oliver Franklin-Wallis. “But with plastic, it is not that simple. While virtually all plastics can be recycled, many aren’t because the process is expensive, complicated and the resulting product is of lower quality than what you put in.”


What’s more, this material can rarely be recycled over and over again. According to Plastic Expert, the vast majority of plastics can only go through this process once, or twice at a push, because “The more you recycle plastic, the worse it gets.” This means that when the second item reaches the end of its lifespan, it will most likely end up in a landfill or in the ocean.

How can you help?

“The fact is we can’t just recycle our way out of this mess: we need to stop making so much plastic in the first place,” Louise Edge, head of Ocean Plastics at Greenpeace explained to the Evening Standard. She insisted that it was up to the government to make a commitment to reducing single-use plastic production. In the meantime, the best that you can do is avoid plastic as much as possible. With plastic seemingly everywhere you look nowadays, this is easier said than done, but these 100 tips can help you eliminate its use in areas of your life you’d never have thought of. For example, checking that there is no ‘polyethylene’ plastic in health & beauty products, and eliminating packaging by making your own cleaning products.