A Guide to the Complex World of Recycling

Trewin Restorick, CEO of the environment charity Hubbub – whose mission it is to take environmental messages to the mainstream – shares his insights into the world of recycling and the five rules you should follow.

Most of us try to do our best when it comes to recycling, but the different ways in which recycling is collected creates confusion.  No wonder the public is baffled when across the UK there are 39 different sets of rules for what can be put in plastic recycling collections!

This lack of consistency and muddled messaging causes problems for the recycling industry.  Simply putting the wrong type of plastics in your recycling bin can cut the value of a bale of recycled plastic from £150 to £10, and makes life difficult for the people sorting our waste as neatly illustrated in this video taken at a Birmingham recycling plant.

What then are the five rules that we should follow to ensure we are recycling properly and not adding to the problem?

1. Reduce and Reuse

Firstly, while recycling is important, it requires energy to move materials around and to process them.  This energy adds to the emission of climate change gases, the major environmental challenge we face.  It is far better to reduce the amount consumed in the first place and to look to reuse or refill wherever possible.

The average UK household throws away £470 of edible food a year – a large amount of which will include packaging.  Simple steps such as writing a shopping list, planning meals, batch cooking, shopping in bulk food stores, and being aware of portion sizes will reduce packaging waste.  It might all sound a bit dull and prosaic, but it will benefit the environment and save money.

Similarly, making shifts to reusable drinks bottles and coffee cups will save money and cut waste.  Do remember though that these containers will need more energy to make than disposable packaging, so please don’t end up hoarding loads and try to use them whenever possible.  

2. Keep it simple

The more complex the packaging material, the harder it is to recycle.  A coffee pod, for example, usually contains a mixture of plastic, aluminium and coffee dregs making it incredibly difficult to recycle. Even if it is recycled, the amount of energy used in the process can have an overall negative impact on the environment contributing more to the release of climate change gases.

Simpler packaging such as aluminium cans or plastic drinks containers are easier for the industry to separate and recycle.  This recycling process also saves energy providing an additional environmental benefit.  Purchasing simpler packaging will make it easier for you to recycle.

3. Get local knowledge

Recycling schemes across the UK vary from one local authority area to another.  This is because central government has allowed local authorities to create their own schemes rather than impose a national system.  This makes any messaging about recycling difficult for manufacturers and retailers.  The government has recently indicated that it wants to change this and bring in more consistency, but this will take time as many local authorities are tied into long term local contracts.

In the meantime, the best thing to do is visit this website and discover exactly what your council will collect.  Please do try to stick to these target materials as putting additional things in the recycling (even if you think they should be recycled) will contaminate the collected materials causing more cost and waste.

4. Make some swaps

It is possible that you could make some simple swaps in your shopping routine that will reduce the amount of waste being burnt or dumped into holes in the ground.  For instance, very few recycling centres accept black plastic trays because the sorting systems can not recognise them.  Black plastic is used because shoppers like the way meat and other products look when packaged in it so simple changes in consumer behaviour could result in this type of plastic being phased out.

5. Give it a Rinse

Everything that you put in the recycling bins ends up at a recycling centre where much of it is sorted by hand.  It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to think about the smelly state containers full of food waste will reach having been left lying around for a period of time.  Your recycling doesn’t have to be pristine clean but giving it a quick rinse will make recycling easier and life slightly more pleasant for those doing the sorting 

Will it always be this difficult?

The concern about plastic pollution caused by the airing of Blue Planet has succeeded in jolting the government into action and they are now looking at radically changing recycling in the UK.  

If they turn their ambitions into action, we are likely to see a much larger investment in UK recycling facilities meaning that more of our waste is handled here rather than being put in boats and sent overseas.  We could see the introduction of a deposit return system, which will give people a financial incentive to recycle drinks containers and we are likely to see a more consistent recycling system across the UK.

Until these changes come into being, the system remains over-complicated making it hard for all of us to do the right thing – so the best thing to do is to Reduce and Re-use as much as possible.  

Here’s a list of brands with the best take-back schemes to help you reduce waste going to landfill.   

Want to know more about the future of packaging? Read more here.