Here’s what I know, the UK Government missed its target to recycle 50% of total household waste by 2020. This target was committed to as part of its membership of the EU. No longer part of the EU, the UK Government has agreed to transpose parts of the agreement into UK law, agreeing on targets to recycle 65% of household waste by 2035, with no more than 10% going to landfill. The UK wasn’t far off reaching it’s 50% target by achieving 45.5% but regardless, we should be aiming much higher if we’re to reduce the amount of natural resources we consume, and start reusing the stuff that already exists. This is called the circular economy which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been a significant driver of.
Greenpeace scrutinised the Government’s figures and called them out as misleading. You see, due to the UK’s insufficient recycling infrastructure and huge amount of recycling we produce, less than 10% of household plastic is recycled in the UK – 46% get incinerated, 17% ends up in landfill, and 19% is sent abroad for other countries to ‘recycle’. China used to take the lions share but has since ceased dealing with ‘foreign garbage’ since January 2018 – can’t say I blame them. Currently Turkey and Malaysia are picking up the slack, or not, as Greenpeace investigators found in a new report. Turkey receives 241 trucks loads of plastic packaging from the EU everyday so it’s no surprise that it’s been found by the side of the road, abandoned in illegal dumps or even set on fire.
Here’s what I don’t understand, if some packaging can be recycled, why can’t all packaging be recycled? If the technology exists, why isn’t everyone using it? We need Government to legislate businesses to act. We need businesses to make good on ambitious sustainability claims. And we need to continue to do our bit at home. Recycling at home can be challenging, and you should check your local council’s website for guidance on what can and can’t be recycled, but there are some items that are currently difficult or impossible for most councils to recycle – some more obvious than others.
I consider myself reasonably clued-up on these things, more than the average ‘Joe’ anyway, but I had a WTF moment recently when I discovered receipts can’t be recycled… Receipts! But they’re just paper?? Nope. Turns out some bright spark thought they needed a coat of plastic – go figure. Actually, it’s so the receipt can be printed without the need for ink regardless of the fact that the plastic coating (Bisphenol A) is toxic. With the world waking up to the plastic problem, why hasn’t the plastic been removed? Online shopping goes some-way to reducing the need for a till receipt, and self-service check-outs in supermarkets now ask if you want a receipt. Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay on your smartphone are another good way to avoid a physical receipt.
This truth bomb set me off down various rabbit holes to find out what the hell else can’t be recycled. Here’s what I (now) know:
OK disclaimer, I did know most wrapping paper isn’t recyclable, but I don’t think it’s widely known that tissue paper can’t be recycled either – this is because it’s usually made from already recycled paper, so its fibres are too small to be recycled again. Wrapping paper that is foil, glittery, or a bit shiny, is not recyclable as it cannot be mulched, and recycled paper would end up with glitter in it (which I’d be totally fine with btw). Even if you receive a gift wrapped in recyclable wrapping paper (The Doodle Factory sell a selection), the sticky tape, unless removed, makes everything unrecyclable – so always peel off before putting in the recycle bin, same goes for flowers wrapped in paper, find the tape and rip it off.
Depending on how much you want to get into it, this article tells you all the different types of paper that can and can’t be recycled, from Christmas cards (yes without embellishments) to greaseproof (no, sorry).
OK, look, I know you’re not a moron, everyone pretty much knows that single-use coffee cups are the devil’s work. But the devil has a side-hustle and it’s called Vegware, which is NOT recyclable. And we can all be forgiven for thinking it was, it’s got ‘veg’ in the name for Pete’s sake!! Technically they are compostable but not at home. They must be taken to industrial composters, so unless you have one nearby your Vegware coffee cup goes straight into general waste – how disappointing. The only way to have a guilt-free frothy coffee these days is to take your own re-usable cup, and if you accidentally leave it at home, ask yourself if you really need the coffee. Oh yea, and make it dairy-free, right.
But they’re made of paper? Yes they are. It’s the glue that binds the book together that causes problems during the recycling process – much like sticky tape, the glue causes clumping during recycling. But why are you throwing books in the bin anyway? Unless the front cover has fallen off or it’s lost a fight with the dog, pass your books on. Donate them to your local charity shop, Oxfam has specialist high street bookshops, but most charity shops take them. Another option is to sell them down the market, donate them to a library, or pass onto friends and family.
Another item that’s super ubiquitous in our day-to-day yet is incredibly difficult to recycle. Black plastic gets its colour from carbon black pigments making it undetectable to Near Infra-Red (NIR) technology widely used in plastics recycling. Black plastic is recyclable, but most UK recycling plants don’t have the technology to detect it. Fortunately, the world is innovating quickly and thanks to The UK Plastic Pact, an initiative that brings together the UK Government, NGOs and business to tackle the scourge of plastic waste, many well-known brands are switching to a new type of black plastic that is detectable. Members of the Pact also commit to stimulate innovation and new business models to help build a stronger recycling system in the UK – sounds promising.
Ice creams tubs
When Ben + Jerry’s launched a dairy-free range I heralded a new dawn for movie nights – goodbye sorbet, and hello ‘Cookies on Cookie Dough’. So it’s a real stone in my shoe to learn that it’s cardboard style packaging (called Paperboard) isn’t recyclable. The tub is coated with a plastic layer inside to stop it breaking down in the freezer. Some recycling plants are able to separate the plastic from the cardboard, but this isn’t widely available meaning it sadly has to go in general waste.
Proving tubs are possible to recycle, I came across a theatre in St Albans, Abbey Theatre, that launched a recycling scheme for ice cream tubs purchased onsite in partnership with a local waste management company. Showing that business can lead and must lead where Governments are failing nature.
Sadly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all when it comes to recycling across the UK, so its no surprise people are confused about what goes in what bin. It’s not us, it’s them. As a nation we’re well-up for the recycling challenge with household recycling figures on the rise. To avoid any confusion, check out what can and can’t be recycled in your area by visiting https://www.recyclenow.com/local-recycling.