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The five biggest recycling mistakes

March 18, 2023

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The five biggest recycling mistakes and how to avoid them

The 18th March is Global Recycling Day. The aim of the day to recognise and celebrate the importance recycling plays in preserving our precious natural resources and to ask people across the planet to think about rubbish as a resource, not waste.

To mark the day, we thought we’d put right the most common recycling mistakes. It’s not always as simple as throwing your recyclables in the bin and calling it a day.

With so much information out there and the different rules and regulations, it can be a bit of a minefield deciding what goes where. Most of us have good intentions but often mistakes are made without even realising it. In this article, we’ll look at the five biggest recycling mistakes and what you can do to avoid them.

Contamination

Contamination occurs when non-recyclable materials are mixed in with recyclables. This can include food waste debris that hasn’t been rinsed, disposable nappies plastic bags, wrapping and pouches.

Greasy pizza boxes are one type of contamination we see again and again. The grease from the pizza makes most of the cardboard unrecyclable. You can either dispose of the whole pizza box in the general waste bin or if you’re feeling particularly diligent (which we encourage), cut the box up, dispose of the greasy bits and recycle the rest!

Putting your recycling into plastic bags is also a common misconception and can cause problems at our MRF (Materials Recovery Facility). Instead, place your recyclables directly in the bin or use a recycling container that is specifically designed for recycling.

Wishcycling

Wishcycling is when people put items in the recycling bin that they hope can be recycled, even if they’re not sure. This can include items like plastic bags and other soft plastics, coffee cups, and broken glass. Unfortunately, wishcycling can actually do more harm than good. These items can contaminate other recyclables and cause an entire load to be sent for disposal or can cause problems with the machinery at the MRF.

There’s a solution to recycling most items, even if you can’t recycle them from home. Soft, lightweight plastics from bags of fruit and vegetables and loaves of bread can now be taken to your local supermarket, as can batteries. Clothes, fabrics, ceramics and old electronic items can be taken to your local council recycling centre.

Recycling the wrong type of plastic

In principle, most types of plastics can be recycled. The most common types of plastics are the two used to make soft drinks bottles and milk bottles (PET and HDPE). These should always be rinsed and put in your recycling bin as especially a milk bottle, made from HDPE, can be recycled over and over again.

The types of plastic that aren’t so commonly recycled include bioplastics (disposable items like cups and cutlery and bags for compost), composite plastic (including boat hulls, bath tubs and countertops), plastic-coated wrapping paper and polycarbonate (including eyewear, DVDs, CDs).

Black and dark coloured plastic is something we often have trouble with in our MRF. It might be cheap to manufacture, however waste sorting machines cannot recognise the dark pigments which don’t allow the packaging to be sorted using standard optical sorting systems. We recommend opting for foods packaged in clear or white recyclable plastic.

Recycling WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment)

In the UK it is estimated 2 million tonnes of WEEE items are discarded by households and businesses. WEEE includes most products that have a plug or need a battery including appliances, old phones, laptops, toys, lighting and sports equipment. Many of them contain valuable components that can be reused but should not be put in your regular recycling bin. Recycling WEEE requires a bit of extra effort. For a small fee they may get collected by your local authority, or can be taken to your local recycling centre. Many large retailers that sell electronics are obligated to recycle your old items in-store or if a smaller retailer, they can join a take-back scheme. The money from these goes towards supporting the recycling centres run by local authorities.

Recycling items that are too small

Putting smaller items into your recycling bin can be a mistake. Small items like bottle caps, plastic straws and broken glass can fall through the cracks in recycling machinery, end up contaminating other materials and ultimately head to disposal. To avoid this, you could try to buy large pots if available. These create less packaging and are much more likely to go on and get recycled into another item.

From green garden waste to batteries, contact lenses to electricals, some items can end up being more complicated to recycle – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the extra effort. Each year recycling saves over 700 million tonnes in CO2 emissions, and is projected to increase to 1 billion tonnes by 2030. There is no doubt recycling is on the front line in the war to preserve our planet’s precious natural resources and ultimately secure a more sustainable future for us all.

Some items are more complicated to recycle, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the extra effort.