Waste Series Article 5
Theoretically, almost anything can be recycled. However, whether that item is recycled or not depends almost entirely on whether it is deemed efficient and economical to do so. Recycling in itself isn’t that confusing, but all the different symbols, words and rules imposed by councils and manufacturers have made it feel overwhelming. So, here are the facts about recycling. If you want to learn about ways to minimise your waste and its impact and tips on how to ensure your recycling actually gets recycled, check out Article 6: Relearning How To Recycle – Tips And Tricks.
Recycling – The Facts and Stats
It is common knowledge that not all waste is recyclable, but you may noy know that some recyclables are better than others. Certain products are more easily recycled and some recycling processes are more environmentally friendly. So, let’s talk about the facts and stats of the different recyclables.
In 2022, Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic launched the Big Plastic Count in the UK. They found that the average household disposed of 66 items of plastic a week, meaning that, in a year, UK households are responsible for throwing away 100 billion pieces of plastic. 83% of that plastic waste is food and drinks packaging. Furthermore, RECOUP (a plastic recycling charity) found that only 41% of that is recycled.
Plastic comes in different forms. You are probably familiar with the triangle made of arrows with a number in the middle – this tells you what category of plastic the product is. Honestly, it’s not a very useful tool for working out if it can be recycled. Instead, check the packaging for a printed recycling label as this will tell you whether it can be recycled and, if so, how to recycle it. So that you can understand how it all works though, let’s go over the most common forms of plastic packaging and their recyclability.
Colourings sometimes makes recycling tricky. Recycled coloured plastics don’t meet the food safety requirements and therefore can’t be turned into more food packaging (they are still used for other things though!). To combat this, many soft drinks manufacturers have stopped making coloured bottles to ensure they can be remade into food grade plastic which they can then use in their packaging. Like coloured plastics, PP cannot be turned back into food packaging. Furthermore, PP can only be recycled once. This means, for now at least, any PP food packaging bought has no recycled material in it.
Unfortunately, there are some plastics which just can’t be recycled. Polystyrene and PVC (found in clingfilm, tents, building materials) are two such plastics. Luckily, they are both becoming less common and recyclable alternatives are available, so, where possible, avoid buying them.
That being said, here are some fun facts for you: over 75% of the HDPE and PET made is recycled, and it is now common to see products which are 100% recycled PET! PET can also be recycled around 10 times which is fantastic.
Aluminium, foil, and steel are all high-value materials at sorting plants and have very good recycling rates. Magnets are used to separate the steel (a very efficient method) and aluminium is collected using eddy currents (sort of like a reverse magnet). Both can be recycled an infinite number of times and amazingly it is more beneficial (economically and environmentally) to use recycled metals than to source virgin materials! 75% of the aluminium ever made is still in circulation, thanks to the fact that recycling aluminium only requires five percent of the energy and emissions it takes to make it from its raw metal (according to Recycle Now).
Glass is 100% infinitely recyclable and over 80% of glass is recycled in the UK (while some other materials are exported). In 2021, almost 70% of the glass bottles and jars sold in the UK were recycled which is amazing.
When you buy glass, it won’t be made from 100% recycled material as manufacturers like to add their own specific colouring which requires virgin material. The amount of virgin material required differs depending on the colour, so a clear bottle is only about a third recycled material while a green bottle is usually made of about 70% recycled glass.
Recycled glass melts at a much lower temperature than virgin material, making recycling glass environmentally and economically beneficial. However, the energy required is still high and, because of the weight of glass, transportation is tricky, making the carbon footprint of glass high. This means that single use wine bottles have a greater carbon cost than a PET bottle or boxed wine.
Check out Article 1: Far Too Much Food – The Problem for more detailed information on the food waste problem. But, in essence, we waste a humongous amount of food each year and only around 20% of that waste is dealt with correctly (composted or anaerobically digested). Food collection schemes are compulsory in Wales and Northern Ireland while almost all local authorities in Scotland offer a scheme. In England, however, only about half of councils have set up a food waste collection. Thankfully, Which? found that almost everyone with access to a scheme uses it; 15% composts their own waste and only 7% still send it to landfill.
Paper and card account for the greatest percentage of waste that sorting facilities deal with, and this percentage is going up all the time thanks to our reliance on online deliveries. Paper made in the UK contains approximately 80% recycled material (which is great) but recently the number of paper mills in the UK has fallen dramatically and thus we now export about 70% of our waste paper and card (figures from 2021).
Every time paper is recycled the fibres shorten, meaning it can only be recycled six times. In its final cycle, the short paper fibres are used for kitchen roll, toilet paper and egg boxes. While these items can’t be recycled again, they can all be used in composting (though what the kitchen and toilet roll was used for may mean you don’t want to add it to your compost heap).
Tetra Pak cartons (a specific brand of liquid container identifiable by their logo – a circle with a triangle inside) are made predominantly of paper and thus many recycle them as such. However, many councils don’t accept them as they can only be recycled at a specific plant in Yorkshire. This is because the paper is coated with plastic or aluminium. The company is working on local collection schemes and different lining options, but for now check whether your council accepts Tetra Pak cartons.
I promise I haven’t just made up a word. Wishcycling refers to putting waste into recycling bins that cannot be recycled (but you hope it can be). Wrap (the waste and resource action programme) found that almost 17% of the waste that turns up at recycling plants are non-recyclable items. Some of these contaminants can be removed simply enough (but it does cost time and money to do so), while other materials cannot be removed, resulting in the ruining of good quality recycling.
To combat this, some councils will stop it at the source, simply refusing to take your recycling if it has too many contaminants in it (a great method). In other areas, however, they will take your waste, but if a batch (i.e., a recycling lorry full) appears to have a large proportion of contaminants inside, the whole lot will be thrown away. This means a huge quantity of recyclable goods go to waste, but it means carbon isn’t spent turning it into worthless recycled items.
If you are not sure whether an item is recyclable or not, please do not put it in your recycling! The rules are specific, and the labelling can be sneaky. Keep reading for common misconceptions and tips on how to make sure your recycling is actually recyclable, but honestly the main rule of recycling is to simply throw it away if you aren’t sure.
To learn about what you can do to limit you waste and ensure it has the smallest impact it can, check out Article 6: Relearning How To Recycle – Tips And Tricks.
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