Recycling's a confusing business. And we're not alone in thinking so. A recent poll by Recycle Now found that many Brits are baffled by exactly which items can be recycled, with a whopping 84% of households putting one or more items in the rubbish bin that could have been reused.
Overall, a third (34%) of the 3,000 households surveyed are incorrectly disposing of five or more items, and almost one fifth (17%) are disposing of 10 or more items incorrectly.
Items which Brits most are confused about include glass perfume and aftershave bottles, foil, aerosols, plastic trays, and plastic toiletries (e.g. shampoo/conditioner).
But flexible plastics are causing some confusion too with a further survey by Abel & Cole finding despite 95% of Brits making a conscious effort to regularly recycle, more than half (55%) are completely unaware that flexible plastics – like carrier bags and drinks wrappers - cannot be recycled from home.
This is leading to flexi-plastics pollution across the country as these hard-to-recycle items often end up in landfill instead of being processed correctly.
The issue is further complicated by inconsistency among councils, who make their own rules about recycling.
But all this confusion is coming at a cost as it was recently revealed the government missed its target to recycle 50% of all household waste by 2020, with levels of recycling stalling over recent years.
"Many of us now make a conscious effort to recycle as much of our household waste as possible, whether it's the plastic packaging on our food or the various glass bottles and jars we accumulate over time. However, not everything we buy can be recycled,” says Nik Williams, managing director of paper recycling company Shredall SDS Group.
“Recycling has become so commonplace that individuals too often assume that all standard household products are designed to be repurposed at a later date,” he continues.
The truth, he says, is that despite major advancements in our country's recycling capabilities we've still got a long way off from having a truly circular economy.
“Greasy pizza boxes, plastic-lined wrapping paper and standard pet food packaging are all not currently fit for recycling, yet people continue to contaminate their recycling bins with these products because they falsely believe they are.”
Another issue, according to Juliet McDonald from Recycling Challenge for Act For Ealing, is the lack of understandable and concise labelling on recyclable products. "It is unacceptable that in the UK we do not have an easy-to-understand and consistent system for assessing if an item can be recycled," she says. "Many people think that the Green Dot logo, for example, suggests an item can be recycled, but it only means that it is recyclable."
What is needed, she believes, is a legal requirement by manufacturers to adopt the triangle system (already an international standard used in other countries) allotting a number from 1-7 indicating which of the seven types of plastic the item is.
"If this system was taken up, environmental educators would find it easier to communicate to the public which type of plastic (eg. PET, HDPE, PP) goes where. You cannot always tell just by looking at plastic."
There should be a second symbol, she suggests, with more precise instructions such as ‘Do not Recycle at Home’. "Without a clear labelling system, items are being disposed of incorrectly and are tossed in the recycling when in fact they should not be included," she adds.
But, while we wait for the system to be improved, here's a rough guide on some of the things you can and can't put in the recycling.
Items you can and can't recycle
“Used pizza boxes are not recyclable because the paper fibres cannot be separated from the fatty oils during the pulping process, making them unusable,” explains Williams.
“Wrapping paper is often too covered in glitter and plastics to separate the necessary paper fibres,” he adds.
It’s not plastic so not everyone believes foil is recyclable, but it is. It must be cleaned and scrunched up into a ball, before putting in the recycling. If it’s sticky with food waste, it should go into general waste.
There is some confusion about whether paper cups are able to be recycled but according to Mike Turner, of the Paper Cup Alliance, they are 100% recyclable. “We have more than enough capacity here in the UK to recycle all the cups sold on our high streets,” he explains.
“The recycling process for the materials is simple, and with over 4,500 recycling points, including in-store at most branches of well-known coffee shops, it has never been easier to recycle your cup.”
Shampoo and shower gel bottles
Most of us don’t have a recycle bin in our bathroom so often our bathroom bottles get tossed in with the general rubbish, but we should be recycling them.
Give them a quick rinse and put them in with your plastic recycling, but make sure you remove any pumps first as this will need to go in with general waste.
“Did you know that mattresses are actually 100% recyclable? If the answers a 'no' then you're not alone as according to Reduce Reuse Recycle, only 16% of mattresses are recycled in the UK,” a spokesperson from Room to Grow says.
If you steer clear of recycling aerosol cans because of a fear they may explode, it’s time to stop as aerosols are in fact recyclable. They’re made from aluminium and steel which are both recyclable. Providing that the can is completely empty, the can and lids are widely recycled, but please consult the Recycle Now web site to ensure that your local authority collection does facilitate this.
Though the newer energy efficient light bulbs can be recycled, older incandescent bulbs should be tossed in with general waste. But you know you should be switching to the newer light bulbs anyway, right? Better for the environment and all that.
Food and pet pouches
Generally pouches for baby and pet food should be placed in your regular rubbish bin. “Pet food pouches usually have an unrecyclable aluminium lining to keep the food fresh,” explains Williams. TerraCycle and Ella’s Kitchen have joined forced to create EllaCycle, a free recycling programme for any brand of baby food pouches.
Who doesn't like a glass of red on a cosy winter evening? “Unfortunately, however, corks don't break down in landfill,” warns Rachel McClelland, founder of Planet Shine, a channel aiming to help people make more ethical choices.
“But there is a way to indulge (almost) guilt free because you can recycle them with Recorked UK,” she continues.
Recent research by VARTA Batteries revealed that 39% of us throw their batteries straight in the bin, but this can cause potential problems with the chemicals eroding into the soil.
Battery recycle points can be found across the UK, at dedicated recycling centres and at many different supermarkets.
Another cause of recycling confusion is the fact that some packaging items resemble recyclable items but are in fact made using a different material. "Crisp packets, for example, can look like they are made from aluminium foil, but in fact they are made from a metallised plastic which is not recyclable at the kerbside," explains Chris Latham-Warde, programme manager for Every Can Counts UK.
A good test for this type of packaging, he says is the ‘scrunch test’. "Scrunch the foil packaging up in your hand and if it stays in a ball, then the foil is made from aluminium and is recyclable. If however the packaging springs back in your hand, the packaging is not pure aluminium and is not recyclable at the kerbside."
Other items that are commonly mistaken for aluminium foil but are in fact metallised plastic include confectionary wrappers, pet food pouches, drink pouches and medicine blister packs.
Finally a product where there should be no recycling confusion. "When it comes to drink cans, the story is very straightforward," explains Latham-Warde. "It doesn’t even matter if the can is crushed or not. Drink cans are made from aluminium which is endlessly recyclable, and because of the high value of aluminium, empty drink cans are widely recycled across the UK. In fact, drink cans are the world’s most recycled beverage container!"