People are confused about recycling, here's what you can and can't recycle

Why are we making so many mistakes when it comes to recycling? [Photo: Getty]
Why are we making so many mistakes when it comes to recycling? [Photo: Getty]

We know we’re supposed to recycle, but though we try our best many of us are getting confused about what can and can’t be recycled.

A recent poll found that many Brits are baffled about exactly what items are appropriate for plastic waste recycling, with mobile phones, disposable coffee cups and plastic wrapping topping the list for causing the most uncertainty.

A further survey, by cleaning products brand, Ecover, found that while almost two thirds of people (60 per cent) say they recycle as often as they can, over a third (37 per cent) do not always know if products can be recycled.

As a result many of us are putting them in the general waste bin if we’re in doubt.

Plastics seem to be giving us the most cause for confusion with seven in 10 of us admitting to being unsure about which plastics can be recycled.

The Telegraph also carried out an in-depth look into the weekly shop of four families from four major supermarkets to work out how much of the packaging for everyday groceries is recyclable.

They found that 68% of the packaging across the four supermarkets could not be recycled, or had confusing labelling such as 'check local recycling'.

READ MORE: We're unintentionally consuming huge amounts of plastic - what's it doing to our bodies?

The issue is further complicated by inconsistency among councils, which make their own rules about recycling.

But all this confusion is coming at a cost as it was recently revealed the government is set to miss its target to recycle 50% of all household waste by 2020, with levels of recycling stalling over recent years.

"Many of us, if not most 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 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.”

The truth is that our recycling confusion can have some very big consequences.

“Placing products you can’t recycle in your recycling bin can cause issues further down the line,” Williams explains.

“Every waste management company will have slightly different rules that they follow, but waste collectors will usually check to see if your recycling bin has any incorrect items. If it does, your entire recycling bin will usually be rejected and diverted to landfill."

What you can and can't recycle [Photo: Getty]
What you can and can't recycle [Photo: Getty]

READ MORE: A plastic-free period is possible: Here’s how

So how do we know what we can and can’t stick in the recycling bin?

Pizza boxes

“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

“Likewise, 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.

Paper cups

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 your 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.

People are confused about what we can and can't recycle [Photo: Getty]
People are confused about what we can and can't recycle [Photo: Getty]

Light bulbs

Though the newer energy efficient lightbulbs can be recycled, older incandescent bulbs should be tossed in with general waste. But you know you should be switching to the newer lightbulbs 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.

Wine corks

Who doesn't like a glass of wine on a hot summer's day? “Unfortunately, however, corks don't break down in landfill,” warns Rachel McClelland Founder of The 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.


According to McClelland any old or unwanted glasses can be sent to Vision Aid Overseas who recycle donated eyeglasses and provide affordable eye care in isolated communities. “This means that some of the poorest people in need of eye care can have their lives transformed,” she adds.