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Recycling explained

What is recycling?

Recycling is the ‘alchemy’ of turning rubbish and used items into new, useful materials or products. This not only gives the old items a new lease of life, it also reduces the amount of raw material used to make new things from scratch. Double win!

Why do we need to recycle?  

Recycling isn’t a load of old rubbish. Well, it is, but it’s also an an important strategy to safeguard the future of our planet. It’s crazy to think it, but Britain generated 26.7 million tonnes of rubbish in 2015 (the most recently recorded year).

It’s hard to imagine that much waste. But if you can picture one blue whale, which weighs about 150 tonnes, have a go at picturing 180,000 of them in a pile. Still impossible to imagine isn’t it?

Bottom line is: it’s a ridiculously colossal amount, and sending it to landfill is bad for the environment for many reasons.

What’s bad about landfill waste?  

Let’s look at this issue through the eyes (or neck) of a plastic bottle. Imagine this plastic bottle has just been thrown in the bin. This is what happens:

  • The energy that went into creating that bottle in the first place is wasted.

  • More energy and raw materials must be used to create another bottle (after all, we always need bottles!).

  • The bottle takes up space in a landfill site, which can create water pollution and greenhouse gases.

  • If the bottle is incinerated, it will contribute to air pollution.

Though it does take energy to recycle a bottle, it’s substantially less. What’s more, pollution through landfill or incineration is avoided too.

What’s the alternative? Recycling, of course.

What’s so good about recycling?

Everything! Our planet has finite resources, so it makes sense to use them carefully – reducing waste, reusing things where we can and recycling whenever reuse isn’t possible.

Here are 5 good reasons why we’re pro recycling:

  1. Conserving natural resources

The less raw material we use, the less we’ll deplete the Earth’s precious (and finite) natural resources. If we can reuse old, recycled materials instead to create consumer goods and appliances, we will reduce the amount of mining and forestry taking place.

Recycling can help to preserve vital raw materials and protect natural habitats and wildlife.

  1. Saving energy

Recycling uses less energy than making a new product from scratch – even when you take account of all the related costs, like transport and wages.

Mining, quarrying, logging, processing and transporting raw materials to prepare them for use in industry takes a great deal of energy.

It’s far 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.

  1. Protecting the environment

Recycling helps to reduce air, water and land pollution. It means there’s less need for mining, quarrying and timber production, which all contribute considerably to air and water pollution, as well as destroying the landscapes where they operate.

Recycling is also helping to slow down climate change, as it helps to reduce the greenhouse effect.

  1. Reducing landfill

There were thousands of landfill sites in the 1990s but by 2020 there’s likely to be about 50 left in the entire country. It’s clear that we’re running out of space, so much so that we’re now even exporting our rubbish to other countries. But for the thousands of landfills that are sat there rotting, they’re all letting off methane – a greenhouse gas that’s 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The good thing about recycling is that it can reduce the need to create more landfill sites in the future.

  1. Creating jobs

Recycling companies employ people to collect and sort used items. Other people transport the sorted materials to the companies that can use them. And designers and scientists are employed to find new, inventive ways to use recycled materials.

Can you tell me how to recycle properly?

Well, there’s no single ‘right’ way to recycle – it depends on your lifestyle and where you live.

Your local council will probably use one of two kinds of recycling: ‘comingled’ or ‘separated'.   

‘Comingled’ recycling is more common in densely populated cities. Here, the council will give you recycling salvage bags. You put all the recycling in the same bag, and it gets separated at a depot.  

In ‘separated’ recycling, you’ll be given a box, or two, or three depending on how many different materials the council collects. Then you arrange your glass, card, tin and plastic separately, making it easier for recycling plants to divide items for recycling reprocess them.

Not all councils accept all materials for kerbside recycling, so check before you chuck. If your council doesn’t accept a particular material for recycling, there’s often local recycling banks and tips who recycle everything from cooking oil to car batteries. Some supermarkets also do this.    

Find out if your council collects recycling, and how to recycle household waste like mobile phones, computers, packaging and green waste.

Will me recycling at home really make any difference?

Sometimes it may feel as though recycling your household waste is just a drop in the ocean when you compare it with the damage caused by industry worldwide.

And yes, of course big companies create horrendous amounts of waste and pollution, but if every household recycles it really does make a difference. Recycling in the UK saves more than 18 million tonnes of CO2 each year – that’s equal to the amount we’d save if we took 5 million cars off our roads. And 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 sorting centre and – yes – sorted. They’ll then be sent to the places where they can be most useful.

All kinds of products are made in the UK from recycled materials:

  • All our UK newspapers are now printed on 100% recycled paper.

  • All garden and kitchen waste collected by recycling teams is re-used, usually as compost – mostly in the local area where it’s collected.

  • Most of the glass collected for recycling is used to make new glass bottles and jars.

  • Plastic can be turned into all sorts of things from packaging to polyester fleece clothing.

Some left-over materials are also sent abroad. British companies alone have shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012. 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 threat. It aims to both reduce plastic waste – and make it simpler for people to recycle.

What are your top recycling tips?

Here are our top 5 but they’re not all about recycling.

Recycling is great, but it’s even better to reduce and reuse. This is a more holistic approach – buy only what you need then use it mindfully to reduce your impact from the outset.

  1. Be savvy with supper

Every year, UK homes throw away around 7 million tonnes of food, and most of it could have been eaten. The sad thing is it just ends up rotting on a landfill. However, if we all stopped wasting food which could have been eaten, we’d take as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as taking 1 in 4 cars off Britain’s roads. The average family would also save around £700 a year.

For the food that definitely isn’t edible – the vegetable peelings, eggshells, nutshells etc – just pop them in a compost bin. Or find out if your local council will take them.

  1. Really wear your clothes

Around £140 million worth (350,000 tonnes) of used but still wearable clothing – goes to landfill in the UK every year. But there's no reason to put any clothing or textiles in the bin. If you can't fix, upcyle, sell, swap or give away your unwanted threads, send them to a textile recycling bank – there will be one near you.

  1. Demand recyclable packaging

Theresa May says plastic waste is "one of the great environmental scourges of our time" and has pledged to ban all avoidable plastic waste in the UK by 2042.

Supermarkets are making some changes, such as charging 5p for a plastic bag. But 2.1 billion were still sold last year. Despite our best efforts to recycle all our plastic, not all can be recycled. For example, 1 billion black plastic food trays go to landfill every year. That’s not good enough. Especially as there’s a alternative – recyclable trays that cost just 0.05p.

Beyond recycling all you can, ask your supermarkets and brands to do more to combat this plastic “scourge” – and fast. A government minister has even suggested dumping excess packaging at the checkout!

  1. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

Want to get rid of an item of furniture, or an electrical appliance that’s still in working order? Advertise it on Freecycle or Freegle – it might be just what someone else needs.

  1. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

There are many useful websites full of ideas, tips and suggestions to help you reduce, reuse and recycle. They include:

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