Drowning in packaging? Confused about what can be recycled in the UK? Colette Earley cuts through the clutter.
Recycling is amazing. Not only does it save energy and conserve natural resources, it also radically reduces the amount of landfill produced. But the recycling process is not an easy one to follow – with so many types of materials and different rules from different councils, it’s hard to remember what to put where. This uncertainty means it’s no surprise that more than half of homes in the UK* are putting at least one recyclable item in the general rubbish, dramatically increasing the amount of waste we produce as a nation – not good.
It’s time to stop sending recyclable materials to landfill and start understanding how to correctly sort through our waste – and we’re here to help! We’ve broken down the common rules when it comes to recycling in the UK, to help make your rubbish a breeze.
Paper is one of the most recyclable materials that we use in everyday life and is easily repurposed, creating new paper materials. Cardboard and paper waste that fits into your home-recycling box – including newspapers, supplements, magazines, greeting cards (without glitter!), catalogues, phone directories, leaflets and flyers, to name a few – can all be taken through your kerbside collection. If you have bulk paper waste to get rid of, paper banks at supermarkets and your local recycling centre are your next port of call.
However, paper comes in various forms and can be a little more complicated than at first perceived. For example, envelopes are not collected by all authorities, as although the main paper is recyclable, the glues that are present aren’t. It’s often fairly rare for padded envelopes to be recycled too, as they’re a composite material, meaning they’re made up of more than one thing. Contaminated paper products, like paper towels and tissues, are not recycled.
The most common metals you’ll find in your home are aluminium, found in drink cans, and steel, like your tinned food (little tip you might remember from school – hold up a magnet to your metal; aluminium is non-magnetic, and steel is).
The good news is that most home-recycling bins provided by your local council accept both – just make sure you clean them out beforehand, as contaminated containers can’t be recycled. Note that metallic plastic film, like chocolate bar wrappers, cannot be recycled.
Glass is another material that can be recycled kerbside, or through bottle banks and local recycling centres. Remember to remove any corks from bottles and jars beforehand, although metal lids can be put back on (they are removed and recycled in the process). Bottle banks will be colour coded too, so put the glass into the correct hole (blue tends to go with green).
A common conundrum is what to do with broken glass, like a smashed wine glass or kitchen dish. Glass kitchenware has a different chemical composition to glass packaging, so they cannot be recycled together. In fact, any type of broken glass shouldn’t be put in the recycling, as it can be hazardous for workers sorting through materials. Wrap up broken glass and throw it in the general waste.
Did you know that the average home usually houses around seven types of plastic**? The four most common are normally recycled through your home-recycling regime: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) tends to be used most (think water bottles and plastic trays). The good news is that it’s also the most easily recycled to make more PET products.
Then there’s High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), used for things like milk cartons and shampoo bottles, and Polypropylene (PP) for margarine tubs and ready-meal containers; both, again, easily recycled – although black plastic is not, so avoid buying that altogether.
The last common household plastic is Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), which is your carrier bags and bin liners. This is moderately easy to recycle, but methods change depending on your area so best to check with your local authority on this one.
If you’ve got textiles like clothes, made from both natural and man-made fibres, these can usually be put in with your kerbside recycling – no rags or spoiled items though, and they often have to be placed in a bag or clearly marked as textiles, so check what rules apply to your area. Larger items like curtains, bedding, towels and rugs can be taken to a supermarket textile bank, provided by charities like Oxfam.
Green fingers? Then producing a lot of garden waste is a given. If you generate lots of green waste, your local council will be able to provide a garden waste recycling bin for your home, where you can put grass cuttings, leaves, hedge clippings, plants, shrubs, veggie and fruit peelings and small branches.
Composting at home is another environmentally friendly way to put your grass cuttings and kitchen waste to use.
Wood can be taken to your local household waste recycling centre. Bear in mind that wood in small pieces, such as sawdust and chippings, can be added to your compost heap.
Enjoying a good spring clean? While it’s great for our headspace, it’s common when doing a clear-out for a number of once-loved household items to be incorrectly disposed of. We’ve made a list of the most common items and where to put them when they’re no longer needed:
- Small electricals – Small appliances are to be taken to your local recycling centre.
- Light bulbs – Standard light bulbs cannot be recycled. Only energy-saving light bulbs can be recycled (and FYI last much longer than the norm!). Recycle these in the fluorescent tubes section of your recycling centre.
- Ink cartridges – There are many
charities that welcome unwanted cartridges – visit aidanimals.com and ensure your donations go to a good cause.
- Plasterboard – Usually contains gypsum, so needs to be separated from other waste. You’ll need to check whether your local recycling centre accepts this.
- Beauty packaging – This is a tricky one, as most beauty products are made up of a number of different materials. Sign up to the scheme at terracycle.com to find your nearest drop off location for things like plastic pots and tubes, pumps and sprays, roll-ons and wet wipe packets.
- Mobile phones – Charities like Oxfam offer mobile recycling or you can take them to your local recycling centre.
- Batteries – A hazardous waste product, local councils usually offer battery recycling through their collection service, but there are also numerous battery recycling points throughout the UK.
- Plant pots – Companies like A Short Walk (ashortwalk.com) can turn your pots (and other items) into new products.
Common recycling mistakes
A little puzzled about whether these items can be recycled? Us too! Here are the most frequently confused items…
This is one of the most regularly binned materials that can actually be put in your recycling — but make sure it’s washed thoroughly first.
Plastic food wrapping
Some plastic wrappers can be recycled at some major supermarkets, whilst others can’t. Visit recyclenow.com for a guide.
Contrary to popular belief, these can actually be put in with the rest of your recycling.
These tough, shiny packs that keep our crisps fresh are a plastic‑metal hybrid that cannot go in the recycling.
Now, this is one that gets us in a pickle every time. In most cases, it can be recycled alongside other paper, but if it’s dyed or contains additives like glitter, it cannot be recycled. The same applies to greetings cards. Switch to brown paper and stick to simple birthday cards!
How to start reducing your waste
- Go paperless and reduce junk mail
- Opt out of carrier bags when food shopping in-store and online
- Support companies that use recyclable or natural packaging and refill where possible!
- Buy a reusable water bottle and coffee cup
- Buy loose fruit and veggies
- Re-use where you can, and think of recycling as your second option
* recyclezone.org.uk ** which.co.uk/reviews/recycling/article/how-to-recycle-in-the-uk
Find our other vegan guides here.
Colette Joanne Earley is a freelance writer based in Bristol. As well as following a vegan lifestyle, Colette loves to do yoga, travel the world and has dreams of owning a miniature dachshund.