Recycling has been around for a decade and by now dividing our rubbish into plastic, metal, glass and cardboard is part of the daily routine. The more diligent among us may even be taking clothes, lightbulbs and batteries to dedicated recycling points, but why do we do it?
There are two big wins from recycling that tackle three environmental woes. Firstly, reusing materials reduces the amount of polluting waste sent to landfill, and secondly, it also reduces the amount of raw materials we use, saving the planet’s resources.
However, there is more to recycling than meets the eye and the array of labels and instructions out there can be confusing. But fear not because we’re here to help, this explainer will clarify what can and can’t be recycled. We’ll also help you find information on your local area so that you can make informed decisions when it comes to recycling.
Not All Materials Are Created Equal
It’s tempting to see all recycling as a good deed, and to an extent it is, but it’s important to understand the ways and means in which different materials are recycled.
Aluminium, Steel and Glass – The Recycling Kings
At the top of the food chain, materials-wise, are aluminium, steel and glass. It takes 95% less energy to recycle an aluminium can than to make a new one and the metal can be reused infinitely without losing any of its properties. In fact, 75% of the aluminium ever made is still in production through recycling. Steel, too, can be recycled many times and is one of the few materials that can be remade into items more useful like cars or bicycles.
Glass, meanwhile, can also be recycled indefinitely without losing its quality. It takes less energy to recycle glass and for every tonne which is recycled 246 kg of CO2 emissions are saved, the equivalent of the average car travelling 408km. Currently the average UK household uses 500 glass bottles a year but only half are recycled, this is bad news as glass doesn’t decompose in landfill.
Paper – Worthy of a Rework
Underneath the titans of steel, aluminium and glass is paper. Recycling paper is highly preferable to using raw materials, with four billion trees felled every year to feed our paper habits. Trees are one thing, but the energy that can be saved through recycling is no joke either; one tonne of recycled paper will save 380 gallons of oil, 7000 of water, and three cubic metres of landfill space, with an overall 60% reduction in energy use when paper is recycled compared to using raw materials.
Paper can be recycled more than once but unfortunately its quality will degrade over time, and its reuse is contingent on the quality of the paper. Office paper (the highest grade) for example, can be reused to make other office paper between five and seven times. After this it must be used to make lower grade goods like egg-cartons, tissues, or even insulation.
Plastic – A One Trick Pony
Bottom of the list is, predictably, plastic. It’s tempting to think that recycling will solve all of our plastic woes, but this is unfortunately a falsehood. Most plastic can only be recycled once and is generally turned into a lower-grade item than the original. UK households throw away 40kg each of plastic every year and only 45% of this is recycled.
Reduce, Reuse, Then Recycle
Recycling is, as you may remember from school, one of the three Rs, the other two being reduce and reuse. While recycling is a great way of reducing waste and raw material use, it still uses energy to break down and remake materials as well as transport and other infrastructure costs. Reusing an item will save energy from the recycling process, as will getting them repaired when it comes to electronics, white goods, and larger items like vehicles.
Reducing is also vastly preferable to both reusing and recycling. A good way to approach the three Rs is by buying permanent items that can replace disposables such as a reusable coffee cup, water bottle or washable face mask. We don’t want to put a downer on recycling, and it’s important to recycle as much as possible, but reducing your consumption in the first place is an even better way to save energy and cut down on emissions.
A Guide to Recycling Logos and Their Meanings
Common Recycling Logos
Resin Identification Codes
Don’t be Caught Out…
Unless stated otherwise these cannot be recycled. The reason for this is that the conveyor belt that the different plastics are sorted from cannot distinguish the black plastics, meaning they head to landfill. Some companies are now using detectable black plastics. These will often be slightly off-black and clearly stated that they are recyclable.
All plastic bottles are recyclable and should be rinsed out (especially if they contain chemicals), squished down to save space and tops replaced. Triggers from cleaning bottles can be left on, however soap pumps must be removed and disposed of in your normal waste bin.
Clothing, Shoes and Textiles
There’s no domestic waste collection for this but the good news is that you can recycle the clothes, even the ones in too poor condition for a charity chop. Drop off your old clothes, shoes, and textiles at clothes banks near you.
Aerosols are widely recyclable, simply make sure they are empty, do not pierce, crush or flatten the can and remove any loose parts such as lids.
Plastic Film and Carrier Bags
The following can all be recycled, but must be taken to designated recycling points:
- Plastic bags
- Bread bags
- Cereal liners
- Shrink wrap
- Rings from drink cans and water
- Frozen food bags
- Magazine and newspaper wrappers
- Bags for loose fruit and vegetables
- Bubble wrap
However, clingfilm, food and drink pouches, bakery wrappers (e.g. bags with lots of small holes in them), film lids (e.g. yoghurt pots), any dirty bags/film containing food, crisp packets, salad bags, compostable bags and any film claiming to be biodegradable isn’t recyclable.
These items, unlike glass bottles and jars, are not recyclable. This includes wine glasses.
Pizza boxes and other cardboard or paper food wrappers with food residue on them should not be recycled.
Christmas Cards and Wrapping Paper
Any paper items which have wax, glitter or other decoration on them should not be recycled.