According to the latest government figures, 46.2% of waste from UK households is recycled – a figure that could be far higher in the future given how keen many of us are to do what we can for the planet, and the expansion of recycling facilities in recent years.
The simplest way to minimise your household waste is by reducing the amount you need to dispose of in the first place. Remember to follow the three Rs rule of recycling: “reduce, reuse, recycle”. So start by looking for low- or no-packaging alternatives to things you buy.
Aim to eliminate as much single-use plastic as you can, especially hard plastic bottles, as they are not as widely accepted for recycling as more flexible plastics. Soap, shampoo and even cleansers are increasingly available in hard bars with paper wrappers, so try those out.
Refill schemes are also becoming popular, both in-store and online, so find out whether you can reuse containers where you shop. Washing-up liquid, fabric softener and skincare are among the most common refill options.
The next step is to understand what can be recycled and where: through kerbside collection, at dedicated deposit points, or in stores.
When we think of recycling we usually picture local authority refuse trucks, and you’re probably already familiar with what they will collect, but there are differences in the items that councils process. For instance, some local authorities accept used batteries, while others don’t.
A first step, therefore, is to look on your local authority’s website for a breakdown of what you can and can’t include. There are other useful online resources, including the A to Z of recycling provided by RecycleNow – the national recycling campaign for England and Northern Ireland – but it’s always worth checking local rules, too.
With black plastic, for example, RecycleNow recommends checking with your council. Traditionally, it was difficult for the lasers that sort the recycling to detect black plastic, so it wasn’t separated out – but this is changing as new laser technology is introduced.
Some of the variation is down to the array of plastics used to make or package household objects – from soft drinks bottles and food trays (polyethylene terephthalate), to milk, shampoo and detergent bottles (high-density polyethylene), and plastic cutlery, cups and plates (polystyrene and expanded polystyrene).
However, recycling guidance differs for other materials, too, not just plastics. Most kerbside collections accept glass jars and bottles, but not glass cookware or drinking glasses. Likewise, metal food and drinks cans are good to go but metal cutlery, pots and pans aren’t. When it comes to tin foil, be sure to remove excess food residue and keep hold of it until you have a tennis ball-size amount to go in – this makes it easier to sort.
Of course, it’s tempting to put an item we’re not sure about, or we believe should be recycled, into our recycling bin – a phenomenon known as wish-cycling. However, this leads to lower levels of recycling overall: if prohibited items are present alongside accepted materials, a recycling plant may reject a whole vehicle load, which then gets treated as waste instead. The Vale of Glamorgan council, for example, reported that up to a third of its recycled waste was lost due to contamination from food waste and soiled nappies.
Your local authority website will also provide details about how to recycle more unusual materials and bulky items that may not be cost effective for them to collect, including cracked drinking glasses, broken metal cutlery and black shampoo bottles.
Every area has communal recycling bins for some of the items not accepted in domestic bins, such as shoes and small electrical items including irons and hairdryers. Alternatively, your council website may direct you to a larger recycling centre.
It’s worth discovering your nearest TerraCycle recycling points, too. TerraCycle works with brands to offer drop-off locations for hard-to-recycle waste streams, including contact lenses, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes, and these are often near to local authority bins.
TerraCycle recycling points can be found in shops as well. Superdrug, for instance, has TerraCycle collection bins for empty medication blister packs. Other retailers offering their own in-store recycling schemes include Lush, where you can return own-brand packaging for a discount on your next purchase. John Lewis also accepts used beauty products.
Such initiatives are particularly useful for items that can be recycled but aren’t typically accepted in local authority collections. BRITA, for example, has pioneered a filter cartridge recycling programme since 1992, allowing users to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles by filtering tap water. Stockists with cartridge recycling facilities include high street stores such as John Lewis and Argos, as well as supermarket chains. Find your local recycling point at brita.co.uk/recycling.
Supermarkets often host a range of recycling points. Sainsbury’s is rolling out a flexible plastics scheme nationwide that accepts chocolate wrappers, biscuit packets, crisp bags, toilet roll wrapping, baby food and pet food pouches, toiletry sachets and even clingfilm.
The Flexible Plastic Fund has a complete list of what you can deposit in these bins.
It’s getting easier
Still unsure if an item is recyclable?
There are many ways to creatively reuse products and packaging instead of discarding them, from cutting worn-out clothes into cleaning rags, to making plastic bottles into miniature greenhouses for seedlings. A quick search online will bring up plenty of ingenious ideas, such as 60 ways to reuse plastic bottles from For Our Seas Health, or check out YouTube channels such as 5-Minute Crafts for numerous other reuse hacks. If you need more hands-on guidance, look for local events – Ecobirmingham, for instance, runs regular upcycling workshops.
If that sounds like too much work for you, go back to the guidance provided by your local authority or look for information on the manufacturer’s website about dedicated recycling programmes.
New initiatives are getting on board all the time, such as Podback, a coffee pod recycling service, while improvements in recycling technology mean that previously hard-to-process items are now far more widely accepted in kerbside collections.
Collectively, these changes are making it easier to recycle a greater range of household items than ever before, meaning we can all push that recycling rate beyond 46.2% and up to new highs.
A simple change like ditching plastic bottles will help the environment. Head to BRITA for more information