In a world beset by a climate crisis, recycling is one low-stakes activity that can make us feel like we’re making a difference. But while we may merrily toss an empty can or milk bottle into the requisite bin, there are also the items that keep us up at night – a grease-sodden pizza box, residue-coated peanut butter jar, or most darkly perplexing of all: the flattened carcass of the toothpaste tube. Can we rest easy in the hope these will be moulded into gleaming new products?
Whether you’re a happy-go-lucky ‘wish-cycler’ – tossing waste in in the hopes it can be recycled – or routinely plagued by different diameters of plastic wrapping, here we shred some common recycling myths.
You have to clean empties for them to be recycled properly
True (sort of)
As a rule of thumb, you should at least be giving items a rinse, and preferably getting them as clean as possible, before sticking them in the recycling. But according to Joe Allen, chief commercial officer at recycling firm The First Mile, it’s difficult to say exactly how clean materials need to be before they’re recycled.
If recycling is sparkling clean, it can theoretically be processed back into exactly the material it was before: achieving the hallowed ‘closed loop’ recycling model – the holy grail for waste watchers. Recycling that’s contaminated to some extent will go on to produce less high quality materials.
This question also depends on the recycling facility in question. While some wash the waste before sending it on to specialist recycling plants, others will process recycling straight away. So to stay on the right side of the factory line, get your recycling as clean as you can.
For the less easily scrubbed items though, how dirty is too dirty? Allen says that it’s up to us to make a judgment call on a case-by-case basis. If your pizza box is sopping with grease, it’s likely too far gone. If it’s merely grazed by a smear of oil then it’s probably good to be recycled. And if only half of your pizza box is sullied by last night’s dinner, you can always separate the box and recycle the bottom half instead.
Receipts are recyclable
The UK still hands out 11 billion receipts every year, and around 50 per cent of these – printed on shiny, thermal paper – are not recyclable. This is because they’re composed of more than one material and contain a combination of potentially harmful BPA and BPS chemicals. If they were recycled, these chemicals would be released into the environment. So, always put these in regular waste.
Luckily, a slow pivot to emailing digital receipts is underway, and increasingly customers are given the choice of whether to take a receipt or not.
Most plastics can be recycled
“Without a shadow of a doubt, the waste that is hardest to get right is plastic,” says Allen. While tins and glass can be hurled indiscriminately into the recycling bin, plastics pose myriad issues. Uncertainty over this tricky material is even fuelling domestics – the BBC reported that 47 per cent of people say they have disagreements at home over what types of plastics can be recycled.
There’s good reason for this: there are approximately 40,000 different types of plastics in existence. For the sake of our sanity, these have been condensed down into seven types (although admittedly one of these is ‘miscellaneous’), which you may have noticed represented as numbers on the side of different varieties of plastic.
“Each one of them is treated with a different chemical process and are bound together in different ways, meaning they require different processes to be recycled,” explains Allen. “They can all be recycled in theory – although some easier than others.”
To be able to tackle this enormously complex area of recycling proficiently, it’s advisable to consult this resource, which provides information on all the different types, and if and how they can be recycled.
The most basic of the plastic world are the tier one, PET plastics, under which falls the likes of water bottles and salad dressing bottles. Mercifully, these can be widely recycled. The slightly more edgy HDPE gang – shampoo and milk containers – can also be recycled pretty much indiscriminately. But the tiers below this prove more problematic and will likely require you to locate specialist services.
This doesn’t mean to say these types of plastics can’t be recycled, it’s just likely they can’t be recycled as part of the normal chain. Look out for specialised carrier bag or other soft plastic recycling facilities at your local supermarket.
If you’re not sure if something can be recycled, leave it out
The rhyme “if in doubt, leave it out” has got things right. The introduction of mixed recycling gripped us with a free-wheeling, hope-for-the-best attitude towards tossing empties into the recycling. If it’s going to be sorted anyway it doesn’t hurt, right? Wrong. Chucking a non-recyclable item in with the rest could risk ruining a whole batch.
Things can go even more awry when the imposter in question is a bit of flimsy plastic like a carrier bag or film lid. “When those goes to the recovery facility they can get wrapped around some of the machinery and cause the machines to break down,” says Allen. “Or, because the machinery can’t tell the difference between plastic film and a piece of paper, it might end up contaminating a whole batch of paper recycling.” Other non-recyclable items can risk damaging the machinery too so always err on the side of caution.
The triangle icon means that something is recyclable
We’ve all scoured an item for some indication of whether it’s recyclable or not only to heave a sigh of relief upon encountering the small green circle icon with interlocking arrows. However, we’re here to shatter your blissful ignorance, and tell you that this devious little symbol – known as ‘the green dot’ – is misleading you. This doesn’t mean the item is recyclable, it actually means that the company in question has financially contributed towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe. To be sure an item is recyclable, it must explicitly state that this is the case.
The endless mutations of different arrow configurations can prove confounding. Another to watch out for is the profoundly named ‘Mobius Loop’, a suitably disorientating white triangle symbol. Similarly, this doesn’t mean that an item will be accepted by recycling facilities, just that theoretically it is capable of being recycled.
Composite waste is the most problematic
This is resoundingly, overwhelmingly true. Lots of the trickiest items to recycle fall into this category precisely because they are composed of more than one material. Troublesome takeaway coffee cups have a layer of plastic pasted inside to increase ventilation; toothpaste tubes often contain more than one type of plastic as well as aluminium; and up there too are the coffee pods that have tracked a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years.
These can prove nightmarish for the recycling chain. “There tends to be two types of plastics, aluminium and coffee in one tiny pod, all stuck together,” says Allen.
It’s not that these items can’t be recycled, but that they overwhelm the processing abilities of regular recycling plants, which aren’t equipped to peel all these different layers apart. However, specialist services tailored to toothpaste tubes, coffee pods and even specialised plastic kegs increasingly used by craft beer producers are springing up. Isolating these specialist items from the rest is not only beneficial because these items will be recycled, but also because it cleans up the traditional stream too, minimising the likelihood of contamination.
The UK is bad at recycling
While a not-insignificant 42.5 per cent of overall household waste is recycled in the UK, the infrastructure in place to process our rubbish is woefully inadequate. This is partly due to the fact that historically, a lot of recycling waste – especially plastics – was shipped to China to be processed. However, China recently shuttered its doors, meaning a gaping hole was ripped into the UK’s recycling chain.
However, targets have been set. There is the aim to recycle 50 per cent of the UK’s waste by 2020, while Scotland is aiming for an ambitious 70 per cent by 2025. There are also fledgling initiatives taking shape around concepts like deposit return schemes. Successfully deployed in Germany for 15 years, this involves returning bottles after use to reclaim a small deposit. “We need to promote circular use over disposable use,” says Allen.
Recycled materials are used to create the same products
While it’s nice to imagine that our containers are melted down and moulded into brand new iterations of their former selves, the truth is murkier. Take plastic. Once plastic is reused, it degrades in quality and can’t be used to make transparent material. To get around this, recycled plastic is usually mixed with virgin plastic to make new products, or is used to make a lower quality materials like polyester for clothing. In plastic milk bottles, the industry average is around 30 per cent recycled material.
Can the recycling process go on forever? There are materials like glass, paper and metal that can – at least in theory – be recycled indefinitely. However, the biggest offender, plastic, diminishes in quality each time it’s recycled, meaning it can only be processed once or twice before becoming useless. This highlights a sad truth of recycling – it’s not the best solution.
Reusing, opting for recycled plastic products and – even better – minimising the amount of plastics you buy in the first place are far better options. On the manufacturing side, large companies should consider moving away from plastics and experimenting with new materials instead.
All your recycling is recycled
This is what we dream, of course, when we carefully clean and place our recycling into the assigned bin, but the reality is considerably more bittersweet. In fact, at each stage of the recycling process in the UK, there is drop off.
For example, of all the recycling that The First Mile receives at their facility, 60 per cent is forwarded on to MRFs (mixed recovery facilities). Here, there is likely to be more waste siphoned off. What kind of sorting system is in place is also decisive. A kerbside system, where recycling operatives sort item by material is more effective that a truly ‘commingled’ system where all the recycling reaches the facility mixed together. However, if you’re recycling optimally, there is a good chance it will reach its final destination.
But even if you have diligently followed all of these stipulations, it’s not guaranteed that your recycling will be used in the production of new materials. This is because the UK is in the habit of outsourcing its recycling to other nations. A report from the National Audit Office found that more than half of the packaging designated as ‘recycled’ is actually sent abroad for processing, without the guarantee that it will be recycled rather than burned or placed in landfills.
For example, a Friends of the Earth report highlighted large quantities of plastic being burned at a paper mill in Indonesia, because it had incorrectly been labelled as ‘paper’ by British sorting machines. In the year ending in October 2018, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of recovered plastic packaging to other countries. Among the top four destination countries were Malaysia and Indonesia – both of which have some of the highest rates of plastic ocean pollution.
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