Rubbish: why your recycling isn’t working

Pots, pods, pouches . . . We put out waste to be recycled assuming it will be dealt with. In fact we are often making matters worse, says Ben Clatworthy

The Times, December 14 2017, 12:01am

On Sunday evening, in the final episode of Blue Planet II, David Attenborough used his (widely praised) address to the nation to highlight — among other topics — the growing problem of plastic. “Since its invention some 100 years ago plastic has become an integral part of our daily lives,” he said as he scrambled along a beach strewn with litter. “But every year some eight million tons of it ends up in the ocean . . . and there it can be lethal.”

Slowly we may be waking up to the fact that a moment of convenience has consequences that can last thousands of years, but perhaps not fast enough. One-use plastic water bottles are a major contributor to waste in the UK — and we use a staggering ten million of them a day. Because, while the bottles themselves can be recycled, the caps cannot. Most facilities are able to handle removing the caps, but it is best to remove first to ensure the bottle ends up recycled.

The problem doesn’t stop with plastic bottles. According to new research, almost a fifth of the waste that householders diligently siphon off into recycling bins, thinking that it will be magically dealt with, cannot in fact be recycled. Worse still, it will contaminate what can be. This is not about washing off every last drop of tomato sauce from a can. It is because the packing that we use is often made up of several components, many of which cannot easily be recycled.

Unclear labelling is often to blame, leading householders to believe that something is recyclable when it’s not. Take, for example, that black plastic ready-meal tray that you normally toss in with your bottles and newspapers, or your glittery Christmas wrapping paper — these cannot be recycled. The same goes for Pringles tubes, many sandwich containers and anything that comes in a plastic pouch, such as pet food or pasta sauce.

Such is the severity of the problem that the Recycling Association, the UK trade body, says it has now had enough. Simon Ellin, its chief executive, says: “We feel that for too long we’ve had to pick up the tab of everybody else’s bad practice, right up the supply chain, [from] the designers who are creating these horrendous products in the first place to the retailers, all of whom we don’t think take responsibility . . . and we end up with the crap and contamination.

“If you have an article — say a laminate pouch — and you look on there and there is no [recycling] labelling, you don’t know if it’s recyclable or not. You can look on your council’s website or ring them up, but if you don’t get an answer and are in any doubt whatsoever, we’d rather you just chuck it in your domestic waste bin rather than putting it in the recycling and causing us a problem because it’s a contaminate.”

Recycling information on packaging varies dramatically. Sainsbury’s, for example, labels exactly which parts of packaging can and cannot be recycled on its own-brand packaging. Other manufacturers include no information, while others reserve it only for products that they say can be recycled.

“It is absolutely horrendous, and such a mismatch [of information],” Ellin says. “Manufacturers should be forced to say, ‘unrecyclable, put in your general waste’, because it wholly confuses the public.”

China, a major recipient of overseas recycling, has now said that it will ban imports of “foreign garbage” early in the new year because it is receiving too much poor-quality waste plastic contaminated with other items. It’s a worrying prospect. Last year more than half of the plastic waste that the UK exports for recycling was sent to China. There are fears that it might not be possible to find alternative destinations for all our recyclable waste. As a result, plastic may end up being burnt, put in landfill . . . or it will end up in the sea.

For householders, the complications start at home, chiefly because recycling policies vary so dramatically from council to council. According to research by Wrap, the waste-reduction charity, more than a quarter of local authorities in England will not collect plastic tubs or food trays, even though many products have labels saying that they are “widely recycled”.

England already has one of the worst recycling rates in the developed world, ranking 18th in a league table published this week. With a rate of just 42.8 per cent, it lags well behind Germany, which tops the table at 57 per cent. Wales, where recycling has long been on the political agenda, ranks third, recycling 53.9 per cent.

Perhaps it is time we should stop assuming that everything that looks vaguely recyclable actually is. Instead we need to start buying products that come in packaging that can be recycled or better still, avoid packaging altogether. Often we think we are doing the right thing — but until we saw Blue Planet II, most of us were all too happy not to give it much thought.

What you can and can’t recycle
✔ Easily recycled
✖ Difficult or impossible to recycle

Baby food
✔ Hipp Organic jars
Glass jars — as for all foods — can be recycled at the kerbside and are collected by all councils. 
✖ Ella’s Kitchen pouches
These are notoriously tricky to recycle. The company, which has a website for recycling (, suggests posting the pouches to a company called Terracycle.

Coffee pods
✔ CRU Kafe Pods
Compatible with Nespresso machines, CRU Kafe pods can be recycled. 
Peel off the top, empty out the grounds, rinse and pop the pod into your recycling bin. Or buy compostable ones which are becoming more widely available.
✖ Nespresso coffee pods
Need a coffee? Nespresso machines might be quick, but the own-brand pods, with their combination of aluminium and plastic, are too complex for most recycling plants. The company offers a postal recycling service, but who has time for that?

Crisp tubes
✔ Walkers Stax
New to the shelves, these crisps come in an entirely cardboard tube that is fully recyclable.
✖ Pringles
Described by experts as the “villains” of the recycling world, Pringles packets are made from five different materials and are too complex to recycle.

Plastic trays
✔ Tesco Beef Lasagne
Tesco has changed some of its ready-meal boxes from black to sage and cream. The decision was entirely cosmetic, but the lighter packaging can be detected by machines so is recyclable.
✖ Sainsbury’s Beef Lasagne
Most black ready-meal containers end up in landfills or incinerators because their colour makes them invisible to the infrared sorting systems. Sainsbury’s says “check locally” to see if they can be recycled.

✔ All Natural Soap Co bars
Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned bar of soap? The All Natural Soap Co sells bars in fully recyclable packaging. Try the special gin-and-tonic fragrance for Christmas.
✖ Carex Original Hand Wash
The pump mechanism includes a metal spring and is tricky to deconstruct, making these hard to recycle. The best option to avoid landfill is to discard the pump and recycle only the bottle.

Cleaning spray
✔ Method Daily Kitchen Clementine Cleaner
Method spray cleaners are made from post-consumer resin, which has a lower carbon footprint. The bottles and pumps are recyclable. 
✖ Cillit Bang Grease and Sparkle Spray
A safety mechanism makes the non-recyclable trigger difficult to remove, while the plastic wrapper is also hard to recycle.

Pasta sauce
✔ Loyd Grossman Tomato and Chilli Pasta Sauce
The sauce is sold in a glass jar with a metal cap, both of which can be recycled. Make sure to rinse the bottle before recycling.
✖ Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Cherry Tomato and Chilli Pasta Sauce
Mixed-material pouches are a recycling nightmare because of the way they are made. They have to go in the black bin bag.

✔ Warburtons Farmhouse Soft White Bread
The farmhouse loaf comes in a film bag that can be recycled — but not at the kerbside. It must be taken to supermarket recycling bins at larger stores. 
✖ Warburtons Toastie White Bread
Warburtons says that the loaf comes in waxed paper to ensure the “freshness and taste is sealed in”. However, it cannot be recycled.

Pet food
✔ Pedigree Complete Can in Jelly
In the UK we recycle billions of cans a year. They are easy to process and can be back on sale in just eight weeks. Just wash them out before recycling.
✖ Pedigree with Chicken and Vegetables pouch
The plastic coating on pet-food pouches makes them virtually impossible to recycle. Putting them into a recycling bin risks contamination.

✔ Waitrose Plain White Flour
Flour that comes in an old-fashioned paper bag — the pack is fully recyclable. 
✖ Homepride Plain Flour
Homepride’s flour tubs use a lot of plastic. The company says: “Each of the components of our pack are recyclable, but do check your local council’s recycling policy.”

✔ Pump-action toothpaste tubes
These are made from a different type of plastic and are generally easier to recycle. However, it is still necessary to check with your council.
✖ Toothpaste tubes
Although these are made from plastic, they are tricky to recycle and it is unusual for councils to accept them.

Drinks bottles
✔ Powerade Berry and Tropical
The simple label is easy for recycling plants to remove, making the product easier for them to handle.
✖ Lucozade Original
Sports drinks that are shrink-wrapped with a polymer sleeve are very hard to recycle because the sleeve has to be removed first.

Gift wrap
✔ Oxfam Snowflake Gift Wrap
All of Oxfam’s Christmas gift wrap is made from recycled paper and is also recyclable. The same applies to their Christmas cards.
✖ WH Smith Luxury Red Glittered Berry Tree Wrapping Paper
Avoid sheets with glitter because they are almost impossible to recycle. Plastic-coated paper and metallic varieties are also hard for plants to process, so must go in the black bin.

Coffee cups
✔ Keepcup original reusable
Available from shops such as John Lewis, the 340ml Keepcup is the “world’s first barista-standard reusable cup”. Some coffee chains offer a discount to customers who bring their own cup. 
✖ Disposable coffee cups
We chuck away 2.5 billion of them a year, but only one in 400 coffee cups makes it to a recycling plant. It’s time to ditch the disposable cup — before the government starts to tax them (which is on the cards).

Symbols decoded
To check how recyclable your bottles and pots are, look for the “chasing arrows” symbol on the packaging. This doesn’t mean that a product can be recycled — it is the number in the middle that tells the story. Numbers one (polyethylene terephthalate) and two (high-density polyethylene) are best and indicate that a product can be widely recycled. Number three indicates PVC, which is not widely recycled. Number four is low-density polyethylene, which can be recycled by some plants, as can number five (polypropylene). Numbers six and seven are not widely accepted for recycling. Avoid buying these products.

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