A guide to recycling, why it’s important, and what can be recycled
By Aimee Tweedale Friday 05 March 2021
Recycling isn’t just a load of old rubbish. Well, it is! But it’s also an important strategy to safeguard the future of our planet.
By now, it’s second nature for many of us: when throwing away your rubbish, you separate glass, cardboard, and other recyclable materials into a different bin.
Almost half of household waste in the UK gets recycled1. Wales actually outperforms the rest of the UK, recycling more than half of their waste – putting them ahead of EU targets2.
But why’s it important that we throw our food waste in one bin, and recyclables in another? Where does it all actually go, and what effect does it have on the environment? Read on for everything you ever wanted to know about the recycling process.
What is recycling?
Recycling is a kind of alchemy: it turns your rubbish into new, useful materials and products.
This means that fewer items end up in landfills, and also that we don’t need to manufacture so many new things from scratch.
Why do we need to recycle?
Britain generated 221 million tonnes of total waste in 2016. (27.3% of this came from households.) Struggling to picture it? Imagine the mighty Great Pyramid of Giza3 – then multiply that by 34. That’s about the size of it!
On an individual level, that means that the average person throws away their own body weight in rubbish every 7 weeks. The UK as a whole could fill the Royal Albert Hall with the rubbish we throw away every 2 hours4.
The bottom line is: it’s a ridiculously colossal amount of waste, and sending all that stuff to landfill is bad for the environment, for many reasons.
What’s so bad about landfill waste?
Think about the lifespan of a plastic bottle. It takes a lot of energy to make it, and transport it to shops in the first place. Once you’ve used it and chucked it in the bin, not only has all that energy gone to waste, but now, it’s contributing to pollution, too.
There are 3 main ways that landfills pollute our Earth.
Toxins. All those toxic chemicals that go into making household goods – especially anything electronic – are poisonous to our natural environment. When things like lead or acid end up in a landfill, they can eventually make their way into the soil and water, causing damage for years to come.
Leachate. This is the word for the liquid that’s created when water runs through a landfill, mixing with the waste. It’s exactly as gross as it sounds! Most landfill sites drain leachate away, to be treated like sewage, but that process takes a lot of energy. A single landfill can produce enough leachate to fill several Olympic-sized swimming pools per year5.
Greenhouse gases. Landfills also release greenhouse gases, mainly methane and carbon dioxide, which harm our Earth’s atmosphere and cause climate change. Waste management (including landfills) was responsible for about 5% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 20186.
Why is recycling good?: Top 5 benefits of recycling
If thinking about the disgusting liquids and gases oozing out of landfill sites hasn’t convinced you of the importance of recycling, maybe you’ll be sold on these 5 facts.
1. It helps conserve our natural resources
If we can reuse old, recycled materials to make new objects and appliances, instead of using the Earth’s natural resources, we’ll make those resources last longer.
Think of it this way: each time you recycle paper and cardboard, you’re helping to protect our trees. And every time you recycle metal cans, you’re helping to reduce the need for damaging mining practices.
2. It cuts down on energy use
Recycling uses less energy than making a new product from scratch – even when you include all the related costs, like transport and wages. It’s way less energy-intensive to reuse old material that’s already been processed and prepared. And because recycling saves energy, it also cuts down greenhouse gas emissions.
3. It protects us from pollution
Recycling helps to reduce air, water and land pollution. It means there’s less need for mining, quarrying and timber production – which all contribute hugely to air and water pollution, as well as destroying the natural landscape.
4. It means we need fewer landfill sites
There were thousands of landfill sites in the 1990s, but that’s dropped to around 500. It’s progress, but it’s still too many – and they’re all still releasing poisonous chemicals and gases into our atmosphere. Fewer landfills could only be a positive thing.
5. It’s cheaper!
You can save money by recycling – especially when it comes to food waste, which can make useful compost for your garden. Plus, glass jars and bottles can be put to use around the home.
On a bigger scale, recycling also saves money for local authorities. Back in 2017, Lambeth council in south London claimed that it’s “6 times cheaper to dispose of recycled waste than general refuse"7.
How to recycle properly: everything you need to know
So, you’re all revved up and ready to start recycling everything in sight. That’s great! First, you’ll need to check online what recycling collections are available in your area.
Got some old electronics to dispose of? Not sure which bin your plastic bottles should go in? Each local authority handles recycling in their own way, so you’ll need to check with your council to find out what’s possible for you.
For some more general tips, keep reading for a guide to what you can recycle, and how to do it.
What is the recycling symbol?
The most recognisable recycling symbol in the UK is the Mobius loop. You’ll have seen it on food packaging: it’s 3 green arrows, forming the shape of a continuous triangle.
This symbol just means that the item can, in theory, be recycled. But where you’re not sure, it’s a good idea to check with your local council, to see if they’ll accept the item.
Types of recycling
How to recycle waste paper and cardboard
Most types of paper and cardboard can be recycled in the normal way. But some specialist types of paper, like tissue paper or greaseproof paper, can’t be – so always check specifics with your local council.
One thing a lot of people forget about when recycling paper and cardboard is to make sure that it’s clean. For example, cardboard that has your old pizza stains on it can’t be recycled. More on that later.
How to recycle plastic
There are 7 types of plastic commonly used around the home. 3 of those can easily be recycled in most places. The other 4 are a bit trickier, but you should still be able to recycle them in some areas. Find out which type of plastic you have on your hands by looking at Which?’s guide to plastic labelling.
Again, it’s important to make sure your plastic is completely clean before you chuck it in the recycling. Give bottles a rinse, and squash them flat to make sure they don’t roll off the conveyor belts when they’re being sorted.
How to recycle metal
Most local authorities will happily recycle your old tins and cans. Give them a rinse, and make sure there’s no food in them when you put them in the bin.
How to recycle electronic devices
Getting rid of an old laptop or phone is a bit more complicated than recycling your old juice carton. To figure out whether any nearby recycling services will take electronic devices, use this recycling locator.
There are also multiple online services that will take old phones and computers for parts – even if they don’t work any more!
It’s worth going to a bit of extra effort, because electronic waste is especially harmful. It often contains poisonous chemicals like mercury or lead, which can wreak havoc on nature, if they make it into the leachate leaking from a landfill site8.
How to recycle wood
Most local authorities will accept wood to be recycled. A lot of recycled wood is sawn down to chips for use in landscaping, or to fuel biomass energy.
But you can’t usually put wood in your household recycling bin. Instead, take it to a local recycling centre. In some places, you can even arrange for it to be picked up by a wood recycling organisation. Find your local wood recycling point here.
How to recycle glass
Most local authorities accept glass. As with everything else that goes in your recycling bin, make sure it’s sparkling clean before you throw it.
You could also recycle glass yourself. Jars and bottles can come in very useful around the home. You could try making a candle from an old jam jar, or using a glass bottle to store cold water in the fridge.
How to recycle clothes and textiles
Our clothes contain a shocking amount of microplastics – which means if you throw them into a landfill, they can do some real damage.
Instead, if you’re sick of wearing something, think about donating it to a charity shop, selling it online, or doing a clothes-swap with a friend.
If an item of clothing isn’t in good enough condition to be sold or donated, you can drop it in a textile recycling bin. You’ll often find these at local recycling centres, or in the car parks of big supermarkets. Find one local to you..
Why is it so important to wash things before I recycle them?
It can feel like a pointless job, washing something up just so it can be thrown into a bin. So why bother cleaning your glass or plastic before you recycle it?
The scary truth is that if your recycling has any trace of old food stuck to it, it might be sent to landfill. We don’t just mean the bottle, jar, or whatever it is that hasn’t been cleaned – we mean the entire load!
Each load of recycling is assessed at the sorting centre, to figure out its “contamination” level. A load is considered contaminated if it contains the wrong kind of items, or food waste. And if there’s too much contamination in a load, it oftens gets sent to landfill, or burnt9. That’s something to bear in mind when you’re scrubbing out old jam jars – it’s worth it after all!
Find out more about how to clean green, with our complete guide to eco-friendly cleaning.
What can’t be recycled?
As always, check with your local authority to be sure of what they will and won’t accept in your recycling bin. But there are some items that you simply can’t recycle.
For example: most paper receipts are actually coated in a non-recyclable chemical called BPS or BPA, so they aren’t recyclable. Over a billion of these little slips are given out in the UK every year – but most end up in landfill. It’s something to think about next time a shop assistant asks if you’d like a paper receipt!
Here are a few other items that commonly cause confusion when it comes to recycling.
Is polystyrene recyclable?
Polystyrene can’t usually be recycled. Most local authorities won’t accept it, but you can double-check what your council’s rule is here.
Can you recycle bubble wrap?
Bubble wrap is a type of soft plastic, which is often not accepted in recycling bins. This is because it can be difficult to sort when it gets to the recycling plant.
You do have a few options, though!
Double-check what your council will accept – because you never know!
Some supermarkets have recycling collection points for soft plastics, so you might be able to dispose of it there.
It’s worth holding on to the bubble wrap, as it might come in handy – especially when you’re moving house.
Is wrapping paper recyclable?
Wrapping paper can sometimes be recycled – but make sure you remove all tags, tape, and ribbon first. You should also make sure it doesn’t have foil or glitter on it.
Here’s a handy trick to know. Check if it passes the “scrunch test”. Scrunch it up into a ball, and see if it springs back into shape. If it doesn’t, it’s less likely to have plastics or other chemicals in it – so it’s more suitable for the recycling bin.
Can you recycle light bulbs?
Traditional, incandescent light bulbs can’t be recycled like other glass. This is because they contain fine wires and chemicals that are difficult to separate, making the cost of recycling them really high.
However, if you have eco-friendly energy-saving light bulbs, you’re in luck! These can be recycled at many large household waste recycling centres, and some supermarkets (along with batteries).
Will me recycling at home really make any difference?
Sometimes when you look at the big picture of climate change, it may feel like putting an old bit of cardboard in a separate bin is barely a drop in the ocean.
Of course, we need companies and governments to lead the way by making the biggest changes. But if every household recycles, it really does make a difference.
Think of it this way: each pound of waste that you recycle saves 2.5lbs of carbon emissions. With the average person recycling 1.5lbs of rubbish per day, that quickly adds up. In fact, it will save an average of 2,400lbs (or more than 1 tonne) of carbon emissions per household, per year10. That’s almost as much as the carbon emissions of a flight from London to New York.
Besides, the consequences of not recycling at all are too horrible to contemplate – a world of festering landfill sites, and islands of plastic clogging our oceans.
What happens to my recycling once it’s collected?
Your recycled items will be taken to a materials recovery facility, or MRF. Once there, they’ll be sorted, and sent to the places where they can be most useful.
Paper and cardboard is mostly recycled in the UK, and used to make all our newspapers11. And about 80% of the glass collected for recycling goes on to become new bottles and jars12.
About two thirds of our recycling – mainly plastic – is sent abroad, to be recycled in Europe or Asia13.
However, since the Chinese ban on importing plastic waste was introduced on 1st January 2018, the UK government has launched a 4-point plan to tackle plastic waste. It aims to both reduce plastic waste – and make it simpler for people to recycle.
The next big challenge is for us to cut down on the amount of waste we create in the first place. New companies like online grocery shop Loop want to get consumers to refill and reuse their packaging, rather than binning anything. That alone can save an immense amount of energy, emissions, and waste.
Hopefully, the future of recycling is not having to put anything in the bin at all!
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Sources and references:
14 This is an average and excludes emissions outside your direct control, such as schools, institutions and government bodies.
15 The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on REGO certificates and how these work.
16 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.