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Recycling UK: waste myths busted

The more we hear about the climate and plastic crisis, the more we can see how important recycling is to help us be more sustainable.

But, sometimes even if we are recycling, we may not be doing right. And doing it wrong? Well, that can be ineffective and set us back even more. So, as the industry continues to change, we’ve looked into some common recycling myths in the UK to see if they’re true, or if they’re false.

Recycling is done the same way throughout the UK

Recently we explored what recycling looks like in Wales, and how having a unified system has helped them become the #3 recyclers in the world. Yet, recycling looks a lot different in Cardiff, say, than it does in Scotland, Northern Ireland, or England.

In England, specifically, the BBC found that each council collects its plastic recycling differently, and that there are 39 different sets of rules for what can be put in plastic recycling collections. Most councils kerbside recycling collects bottles, others collect pots, tubs and trays, while some collect a much wider range, including plant pots and polystyrene packaging (only 1% of councils).

This recycling myth, then, is false.

Empties must be completely clean for them to be recycled properly

‘Contamination’ is recycling’s worst enemy, but what does it mean? Say you have ‘co-mingled’ recycling and put your paper in with a dirty food container, the now dirty paper will find its value reduced as it becomes harder, if not impossible, to recycle. Wondering what to do with your greasy pizza box? It’s likely that this will be too contaminated for processing, so there’s no need to wash it, just leave it out of your recycling.

You don’t need to spend hours cleaning everything. There’s no need to go overboard, expending an unsustainable excess of energy and water on over-washing – drink bottles, for example, only need a light rinse before going into your recycling bin, and don’t need their labels removing.

This myth is false.

All plastics can be recycled

With 47% of Brits saying they have disagreements at home over what types of plastics can be recycled, and 40,000 different types of plastic out there, is it any wonder people are confused?

PET plastics, from which water bottles and salad dressing bottles are made, and HDPE plastics, from which shampoo and milk containers are made, can be most easy to recycle. However, plastic bags, toothpaste tubes, and old plastic toys can be recycled, just not within your kerbside collection. Look in your local supermarket to see which they will collect, and also contact Terracycle to find a bank near you that’ll accept a wider range of plastics.

This myth is partly true and partly false.

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Food and drink containers can’t be recycled

The answer isn’t all too clear with this question. For some food and drink containers, especially those made out of PET, they can be easily recycled in your kerbside collection. However, Pringles tubes and crisp packets are trickier and are often not able to be recycled in an accessible way.

This myth is partly true and partly false.

Not sure if something can be recycled? Leave it out

Avoid contamination by leaving out items you’re not sure about. If it turns out they are non-recyclable, they may risk invalidating the rest of your recycling by getting it dirty with food waste or other liquids. Plastic bags also can hinder the recycling process, should they get in the way, causing havoc for machinery.

This myth is true.

If something is ‘recycled,’ it’s recyclable

Sadly, just because a product contains recycled materials, or has been recycled previously, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable. More products should be designed with the closing loop of recycling at their heart, rather than as an afterthought, so that they can continue to be repurposed.

This myth is false.

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Anything made from more than one material can’t be recycled

With today’s technology, more and more products can be recycled effectively. However, the time, effort, and value vary, and the amount of energy and equipment needed can mean that products made from more than one material often end up in landfill.

Take certain coffee cups, for example, as a blended product that aren’t able to go into the main plastics stream of your recycling. Could they go into their own stream and sent to an independent recycling facility that would be able to separate the elements and recycle separately? Sometimes, yes. Does this often happen? No. We advise researching what your waste provider or council’s rules are for plastics and other materials, and go from there. And if you need help, our friends over at First Mile have created a system to turn coffee cups into paper products.

This myth is false.

The triangle icon or green dot means that the item is able to be recycled

The green dot symbol simply means that the manufacturer has financially contributed towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe. It doesn't tell you whether the item can be recycled or not.

The white triangle of arrows, called the Mobius Loop, similarly lets you know that the materials could be recycled, but it’s not definitively able to be recycled – it may not always be accepted by the recycling facilities that you have access to. On plastics, the triangle icon tells you which type of plastic is within your product, using a number system, but this does not mean that they can necessarily be recycled.

This myth is false.

The UK is bad at recycling

As previously mentioned, Wales is great at recycling. In England, we could do better. In 2018/2019, the total amount of household and non-household waste that was reused, recycled or composted in Wales was 62.8%, while England’s rate was 44.7%.

In 2018 also, The British Science Association spoke to 2,000 people across the UK on their recycling knowledge. No one got all the answers right, and only 3/10 looked it up if they were unsure. 7/10 people either gave up and threw the recyclable in the landfill bin, or placed it in the wrong stream. When it comes to recycling, it seems we have a long way to go.

This myth is mostly true.

Separating waste is unnecessary because it will be sorted for me

Once upon a time, recyclers could put everything into one bin and have it collected and sorted by their waste providers. We now know that although this is easier for residents and cheaper for councils, it can be extremely ineffective. When people put all materials together, the risk for contamination – and the risk for damage to materials – is hugely increased. What does this mean? By combining everything, there’s a great likelihood that none of your waste will be accepted and will instead end up in landfill.

This myth is false.

Consumers must lead the way with recycling

Imagine a world where recycling could be even more simple – putting products in a bin and knowing for certain that they will be recycled and turned straight into new products. While consumers are responsible for sorting their waste, this could be made a whole lot easier if manufacturers and producers could create products made with recycling in mind. Often, the everyday items we use are not actually recyclable, made with a blend of materials, or made from plastics that are not able to be repurposed. Therefore, consumers can do the hard work and still find their efforts thwarted.

The responsibility needs to fall on brands to create great change, by incentivising customers with financial returns for recycling their bottles, containers, or packaging. It’s large-scale companies, with money and power behind them, that can make the biggest difference.

This myth is false.

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Recycling is a waste of time

Recycling makes a great difference, protecting our environment from the single-use plastics already prevalent, and preventing waste from going to landfill. The better we can recycle, the more we can continue to repurpose the same materials and create a circular economy model. Recycling matters, and we hope you’ll join us in striving for a waste-free UK.

This myth is false.

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