Do you wrap your sandwiches in clingfilm or tinfoil? Perhaps you’re considering getting your milk delivered in glass bottles, but can’t decide if the environmental benefit justifies the financial cost. As Scottish retailers prepare for the introduction of a deposit return scheme, which will see a 20p deposit levied on all drinks packaged in single-use bottles or cans, and the UK parliament weighs up other options for increasing recycling rates, we pick our way through the intricacies of recycling.
Prioritise metal – and don’t forget the bathroom
“When thinking what to do first, the answer is ‘reduce and reuse’ over and above recycling and composting,” says Julian Kirby, the lead plastic pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth (FoE). “Recycling is good, but it still uses lots of energy, water and other resources.” From the perspective of global heating, however, aluminium and other metals are among the most important to recycle. “It takes nearly 20 times as much energy to make a new aluminium can as it does to make one from recycled aluminium,” he adds. However, paper, cardboard, glass and even some plastics can, in theory, all be recycled indefinitely, so are still worth doing. And be sure to think outside the kitchen; bathroom items are often overlooked because of confusion about what can and can’t be put in the recycling bin, says Richard Clapham of Recycle Now, the national recycling campaign for England. “Use a bamboo toothbrush if you want to – anything that takes away the inappropriate use of single-use plastics is good – but also consider shampoo, bleach and cleaning-product bottles. As long as they are empty, and rinsed if you can, these are good to recycle.” Ensure any lids are screwed back on, but do remove pumps from bottles, as these can’t currently be recycled.
The odd small mistake in your recycling is OK – but not with nappies
Usually, the first thing that happens to your recycling is that it is sent to a “material recovery facility”, where materials are sorted by their shape, size, weight, magnetism and appearance. Mistakes sometimes occur – compostable plastic may, for example, be mistaken for conventional plastic because it looks almost identical – and where this happens, it can reduce the quality of the recycled material. So it pays to be vigilant.
However, the various materials are also checked over by hand, so any obvious mistakes – such as leaving a nonrecyclable lid on a bottle – should be detected. There are certain items that should never be put in a recycling box, however. These include used pet litter, medical and sanitary products – including nappies, which can cause an entire recycling truck load to be sent to landfill instead of being recycled.
Rinse your bottles and tins – or they may be rejected
“Really mucky packaging will be considered too contaminated and be rejected, but a quick rinse is enough to get them through the system,” says Kirby. “Consider the men and women whose job it is to transport and sort your recycling. They don’t want putrid curry sauces and beer pouring over them.”
Recycling envelopes with plastic windows is fine
“Once the envelopes go to our pulpers and dissolve, any plastic gets extracted out,” says Shona Inglis of the recycling and waste management company DS Smith. The same goes for sticky tape on wrapping paper – although the more of this you can remove, the better.
If you aren’t being asked to separate your recycling, that’s a problem
You dutifully separate plastic from card, and risk serrated fingers washing out empty chopped tomato tins, imagining them reborn as benches, Frisbees or simply new packaging. But, according to a report by the National Audit Office last year, more than half of the packaging reported as recycled is, in fact, sent abroad for processing – with little guarantee it won’t be burned or buried in landfill.
A recent report by FoE found large quantities of plastic – including items with British supermarket labels – being incinerated at a paper mill in Indonesia. The problem, it seemed, was British sorting machines mistaking flat pieces of plastic for paper. “If you have a ‘kerbside sort’ system where operatives sort your tub of recycling into different compartments on a truck, then pretty much all of it gets recycled,” says Kirby. “But if you have a fully ‘commingled’ system, where you dump it all in one bin and the bin gets tipped into the back of a lorry for sorting later, then more gets rejected and so ends up in landfill or, worse, incinerators.”
A key objective of the deposit return scheme in Scotland is to improve the quality of recycled materials by ensuring that glass, plastic and metal drinks containers are separated. “Deposit return has a crucial role to play in increasing the number of items being recycled into items of the same use or quality – for example, bottles being recycled back into bottles,” says Jill Farrell, the chief operating officer for Zero Waste Scotland.
Get your milk delivered in glass bottles
Even though reusable glass bottles are heavy and require higher temperatures during the initial production process – thereby consuming more energy – they are generally the better option, particularly if the milkman delivers from nearby farms. “But for top marks, the delivery van must be powered by renewable electricity and the bottles need looking after, so they last the 20-odd washes needed to make them pay for themselves in climate terms,” says Kirby.
If you can’t afford the milkman, or milk delivery isn’t available where you live, it isn’t a disaster. Plastic milk bottles are considered a “high value” recyclable material, so there’s a strong incentive for waste companies to do so. And, although there are restrictions on the amount of recycled plastic that can go into food grade materials, such as milk containers, they can be made into other things. “Currently, approximately 30% of the plastic in milk bottles is recycled material, and companies are working to improve that all the time,” says Steve Morgan, technical manager at RECOUP, a charity that is working to improve plastic recycling rates.
Of course, one solution would be for supermarkets to start selling milk in reusable containers – something they may consider with enough pressure from consumers. Later this year, the recycling company TerraCycle, is launching a deposit return scheme called Loop, in partnership with Tesco, whereby customers will be able to buy products including toothpaste, deodorant and ice-cream from major brands in robust and reusable packaging. “We definitely see milk as a product which can, and will, be available in time via the system,” says Stephen Clarke, head of communications TerraCycle Europe and Loop.
A cotton bag for life needs to be used 131 times to be worth it
Whatever type of bag you choose, the key to reducing its environmental impact is to reuse it as many times as possible. One study by the Environment Agency found that, compared with a conventional lightweight supermarket bag, a heavier-duty bag for life made from low-density polyethylene, would need to be reused at least four times; a nonwoven polypropylene plastic bag with a “tarp-like” appearance, 11 times; and a cotton bag 131 times, to have a lower impact on global heating. So, if you’re going to throw away that cotton bag as soon as it gets a bit grubby, you would be better off choosing something you are definitely going to keep using – even if it is plastic. And, when it comes to the end of its life, be sure to recycle it, rather than sending it to landfill.
Buy recycled plastic products when you can
Even if you recycle newly created or “virgin” plastic, you are still fuelling the demand for it, and there are fossil fuel companies ramping up their production of new plastics to feed our insatiable appetite for it. Look out for labels saying products are made from, or partly made from, recycled plastic, Clapham suggests.
Plastic supermarket packaging reduces some food waste – but it still does more harm than good overall
A recent study by the Cucumber Growers’ Association found that shrink-wrapping cucumbers reduced moisture loss, afforded some protection against damage during transportation, and extended their shelf life. And shrink-wrapping steaks in plastic packaging extends their life by up to 10 days. In other cases, though, it can increase food waste: A recent review by FoE Europe, found that chopping green beans to fit into square plastic packaging, resulted in 30-40% of the beans being wasted. “While some packaging has a role to play in protecting food and extending shelf-life, many packaging practices increase wastefulness of both food and packaging,” the report said.
Use compostable plastic – even though it isn’t perfect
Many fast-food outlets are switching to compostable plastics, such as Vegware, to boost their eco-credentials. But, unless your local authority sends its food and garden waste to an industrial compost facility, these containers will remain decidedly plasticy for many generations to come. “When FoE surveyed London councils, we found they couldn’t handle compostable plastic, advising householders to chuck it in their rubbish collections,” says Kirby. Compostable plastic won’t compost in landfills because it lacks the necessary blend of moisture, microbes and warmth, nor in most home-compost heaps; neither will they break down if they end up in the ocean.
Even so, there are advantages over conventional plastic, argues a spokesman for Vegware. “Vegware is made from plants using lower carbon, renewable, reclaimed or recycled materials, and these benefits still apply to them after use,” the company says. Also, “the more compostables there are in use, the more we can work with the waste sector to extend collections UK-wide”.
Vegware recently launched a collection service for trade customers in Bristol, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and most of Scotland – although this still hinges on food vendors collecting their customers’ used containers, which many don’t.
All disposable nappies are a problem – but eco ones are still the best option
Like compostable plastic, a biodegradable nappy won’t easily break down in landfill. And you definitely can’t put them in your recycling bin. On the other hand, many “eco-disposables” use fewer chemicals, such as bleach, during their production process.
Avoid black plastic food packaging – although other colours are fine
Even plastic milk bottle lids can now be recycled – although double-check that your local authority collects them – and the advice from Recycle Now is to squash bottles and screw the lids back on. Black plastic – often used as a marketing ploy because it makes food look nicer – is an exception: “Black plastic is problematic as it cannot be identified by automatic sorting machines and therefore is not currently recycled,” says Clapham.
Use a tin for your sandwiches, rather than tinfoil or clingfilm
The “reduce and reuse” mantra applies: investing in a sandwich tin or reusable wrappers is a better option – if you really will use them again and again. But don’t forget that tinfoil can also be washed and reused if you take care of it, and then recycled. Plastic film can’t.
Soft plastics can be recycled – find somewhere that takes yours
Check whether your local supermarket has a carrier bag collection point – these also accept bread bags, breakfast cereal liners, frozen food bags, bubble wrap, and magazine and newspaper wrappers. Other types of soft plastic are trickier, but many can in fact be recycled. “The difficulty is that they are hard to collect in large volumes, tend to get stuck in machinery at the household recycling centres, and basically cost more to collect, separate and recycle than they are worth,” says Clarke. TerraCycle has been working with manufacturers and volunteers to establish local collection points for all sorts of soft plastics, including crisp and confectionary packets, baby and pet food pouches, toothpaste tubes and many other items that usually get sent to landfill. These are aggregated at TerraCycle’s warehouse until they have enough of them, and then shredded and converted into flakes or pellets, which can be used to make picnic tables, fence posts, composite paving and other items. Check their website for collection points, or you could even set one up yourself.
Stick with reusable coffee cups for now
Processes are also being developed to recycle disposable coffee cups. For instance, DS Smith says it has the capacity to recycle all the 2.5bn coffee cups we use in the UK each year at its paper mill in Kent. The challenge is developing the infrastructure to segregate and collect them. “One of the problems with coffee cups is actually getting them because people drink them on the go,” says Inglis. And even if you hold on to them, most local authorities won’t currently collect them.
Lobby your local council and the government – it makes a difference
“Any item that is recycled helps reduce the need for new products to be made from virgin materials,” says Clapham. Even so, the current system is inconsistent and confusing – and there is only a limited amount that we can achieve as individuals. “First and foremost, there needs to be a consistent set of materials collected for recycling across the UK, so, wherever you live, you know that you can recycle certain materials in a certain way,” says Morgan. That consistency also needs to apply to high street bins – while the UK’s reprocessing capacity also needs to increase, so that less of our waste materials are sent abroad, he adds.
Ultimately, it is governments and companies that set the rules, so get on to a campaign site to put pressure on them to change, Kirby says.
The government has just ended a consultation period on its resources and waste strategy, which outlines plans to ensure a consistent set of dry recyclable materials is collected from all households and businesses, as well as a deposit return scheme on cans and bottles, similar to the one being introduced in Scotland. It also proposes introducing a tax on plastic packaging containing less than 30% recycled plastic and insisting that producers pay the full cost of dealing with their waste. It’s a step in the right direction, but none of this is expected to happen until 2023.
According to the Green party: “Many local authorities are tied into long contracts – 15 to 25 years – for their waste disposal, and these sometimes include minimum volume or weight commitments, which result in the local authority having to pay penalties if they cannot produce enough waste. We also don’t have the national infrastructure to process and recycle most of our waste.”
Try to find new homes for old phones and electrical items
If the phone still works, wipe the data and pass it on. You can also donate working electrical items to some charity shops, prolonging their lives. If your device is irreparable, take it to a household waste recycling centre, or check if your local authority does kerbside collections. If it has a plug, uses batteries, needs recharging or has a picture of a crossed-out wheelie bin on it, your electronic item can generally be recycled: “They contain a startling array of valuable materials that would save a lot of environmental destruction if recycled rather than being put into landfill,” says Kirby. With batteries, it is better to buy rechargeable ones, but standard batteries contain many valuable metals that can be recycled. Take them to collection points in supermarkets, DIY outlets or other local shops – or check if your local authority collects then at the kerbside.