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A Guide To Recycling - And Overcoming Its Limitations


A pile of generally recyclable plastic bottles and cans.

If you’re a regular reader of our thoughts and discussion you’ll know our perspective: Recycling Isn't Enough, and the sooner that message is spread more widely, the sooner we can get on a more sustainable track 😊 Like many of you starting your eco journey - I felt I was doing my part by recycling my plastics, separating what goes in which bin; I even annotated what could and couldn’t go in my bins from an article I’d read online. Turns out, a lot of what I was really doing was wish-cycling (a term explored promptly). Little did I know then, that recycling isn’t as simple as it should be. Even writing this article, I’ve discovered new information about optimising my recycling, further emphasising to us the reality that we’re all at different stages of our journey!

Which brings us to the now. Consider this your ReLove Recycling Guide. A template from the mistakes we've made and most importantly what we've learned along the way. A debunking of some false truths to help you optimise your recycling game. An insight to our findings to make it all a little less foggy. Let’s get into it...

RECYCLING DIFFERS BY DISTRICT

Now I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but here in Scotland, each of our 32 councils have their own rules on what they can recycle, what bins different kinds of waste should be put in and even the number and colour of bins they provide just to confuse us further!! 🥴 Ultimately, a lot of this confusion could be avoided if there were a more centralised body deciding the colour of a damn bin, but I digress...What can and cannot be recycled is dependant on the type and amount of machinery each district has in their respective sorting centres. Whether they have the machinery to, for example, separate a Coke can from a plastic bottle to ensure they are recycled appropriately. If you’re interested in reading more about the kinds of machinery they use - here’s an article we read to better understand the process.

WHAT GOES IN AND WHAT DOESN'T?

Now that we know that recycling differs greatly by district, we know why it's so damn confusing 😆😆 But it doesn't have to be! Solving the conundrum that is recycling involves doing a little teensy bit of research on your part - but for what we can generally generalise as recyclable, check out the below table...

 ✔️ Waste most districts can recycle ROADSIDE ✔️
Plastic bottles including toiletries, drinks and detergents. Plastic tubs and food trays including butter and yoghurt pots. Metal tins, cans, lids, food trays and aerosols. Paper and cardboard including newspapers, envelopes, cereal boxes and toilet roll tubes.
✔️ Waste most districts can recycle in CENTRES ✔️
Glass bottles and jars (excluding pyrex), clothing, stainless steel, electrical items, batteries and light bulbs.
❌ Waste most districts cannot recycle ❌
Crisp packets, greasy pizza boxes, plastic/paper straws and black plastic food trays
❌ Waste ALL districts cannot recycle ❌
General waste, food (you can compost some of that instead), receipts, toothpaste tubes, polystyrene, plastic bags, plastic film, plastic wrap, used cotton pads and paper towels.

Have a look at BBC’s article which highlights some of the most commonly recyclable items from your doorstep and RecycleNow’s postcode recycling checker to see what items can go in YOUR bin - it’s suuper handy. If you’re in West Dunbartonshire as we are - I've reached out to our council to clarify some things. Once they respond, I will add in a simple little graphic below for what you can and can’t pop in your blue bin 🔷

THE LIMITATIONS OF RECYCLING

By learning the downfalls of the recycling system as it is at present, you can be empowered to do better with your contribution. It's frustrating - we hear you - but with the right knowledge we can at least reduce the impact of its limitations!..

Wish-cycling

You know that thought ‘I don’t know, I’m better tossing it in with the recycling and they can sort it at the other end’? That’s wish-cycling. The well-intentioned, ultimately harmful behaviour of throwing questionable items in the recycling bin, hoping they can somehow be recycled. Sadly, what it does in reality is cost recycling centres time and money - clogging machines and potentially ruining entire batches of material. The lesson here being: if you’re still unsure after looking it up, it’s better not to recycle it.

Misconstrued as recyclable

Like many of you, we have done our fair share of wish-cycling. But I can attest that there are a bunch of items I ALSO used to toss in the recycling confident the whole time that they were totally recyclable! 🤦‍♂️ How many of these have you fallen for?...

 Item Why can't I recycle it?
Black plastic trays The method used to colour the plastic means it can't be recognised by the sorting systems (ridiculous we know)
Toothpaste tubes They combine different materials, making them difficult to separate.
Sticky notes Their adhesive strip - cut it off!
Receipts They are coated with a BPA and BPS chemicals.
Crisp packets The residue and grease that clings to them (particularly recycling's arch nemesis - Pringles who combine numerous materials).
Plastic salad/fruit bags They combine different types of plastics, making them difficult to separate.
Cotton rounds Their blending process with synthetic materials. Even 100% cotton often can’t be composted due to the chemical makeup removers often used with them.
Paper/plastic straws Recyclable in theory, but the collection and identification process makes them nigh on non-recyclable!
Pizza boxes The grease penetrates the material making it non-recyclable. If you can, recycle the non-greasy parts! 
Drinking glasses + pyrex The heat treatment applied.

The size requirement

This has to be the most surprising thing we learned when researching recycling infrastructure 😲 Depending on what machinery your council has available, there can often be a size requirement to what can, and cannot be recycled in processing plants. That’s why items like bottle caps, tin foil and plastic straws - made of totally recyclable materials - often wind up in landfill 😠 So if it’s not bigger than a tennis ball - do you your best to save it up and recycle later! (Pro tip: use an old tub to save up your foil). 

The majority of recycling - isn’t recycled!

We’ve all seen the images of beaches, oceans and streets covered in our plastic straws, bottles and other waste. You, an avid recycler, may feel absolved of this issue because at least it’s not mine, I recycle. But what if I was to tell you that a whopping 91% of plastics aren’t recycled - would you rethink your usage? Now, there are of course, occasions you may be unable to avoid waste - and that’s ok. Even we, the founders of ReLove, are still in the midst of rooting out the plastics in our home - and that’s ok too. Ultimately, every step you’re taking with our planet in mind is a positive one - even if the results don’t yet reflect your efforts. When it comes to plastics and disposables - don’t blindly rely on recycling centres to save the world for you. Replace single-use with reusable alternatives and you can make a real difference. This is what we specialise in. Every day we are on the lookout for new eco swaps to make your life easier and save you money, all the while helping you become more conscious of your impact on our Earth 🌍 Check out our complete range of eco swaps when you've read this article.

OPTIMISE YOUR RECYCLING

Systematic change directed from a government level must be done to optimise a recycling regime that has become stagnant in recent years, across the UK (read about current plans here). Namely, by making more consistent rules across districts with standardised equipment, increased recycling ability for common non-recycled items and freakin' standard colours and number of bins wherever you are in the UK. (During the writing of this article the government actually revealed plans to streamline recycling). While we are under no illusions that this improvement will take place overnight - we are convinced that in combination with encouraging citizens to reuse where possible and banning more single-use disposables, the investment in creating a more circular economy will be not only worthwhile for what it would save in pollution across the world, but give our country the chance to lead the way to a more considerate future whereby remanufacturing costs would be reduced, thus improving the circularity of our economy. In the meantime, it is up to us, the people, to do our absolute best to reduce our own landfill contributions. Here’s how you can do it...

Check with your council

As we’ve adhered, recycling differs greatly between councils. That’s why it becomes essential that you check out your area's online guide to optimise your recycling game. From there, you could do as we do and print out some annotations for your bin (so that everyone else knows what goes in too!) Further than that, pop your local council an email to check if they prefer you wash out your recyclables. While you should always wash off any food residue to stave off rats, some districts prefer that you DON’T wash out the likes of your shampoo bottles to save water since they have industrial sized cleaning that takes place anyways. Another worthwhile tip is to check whether they prefer you to remove caps from plastic bottles or if they have the machinery to accommodate recycling them. While the PET material used with most plastic caps is completely recyclable, bottle reprocessors can struggle to separate them if they aren’t equipped to do so. 

Help make identification easier

Scrunch up, don't tear up. Stop shredding and ripping apart recyclables unnecessarily. Where you can, opt to scrunch them up instead as it makes them easier for recycling separators to identify. Another awesome one is the scrunch testA simple way of checking whether something is recyclable: if the item springs back into shape after you have scrunched it up, then it shouldn't be recycled! Another tip we love is when you're recycling your glass jars at collection points - leave the lids on! They're recycled differently from aerosols and cans so leaving them on actually makes them easier for centres to sort 😇 We're sure there are loads more - feel free to drop them in the comments ♻️ 

Recycle with Terracycle

Save up your kerbside non-recyclables because many of them CAN be recycled with Terracycle. It may feel like an extra task no one wants - but until recycling centres are better equipped to handle such common materials (or better yet, governments ban single-use for good 💁) we have just made it a monthly trip to our local Terracycle point to recycle our bottle caps, crisp packets and more! Some brands including Febreeze, Bayliss and Colgate even have direct partnerships to create a circular loop with a handful of their products. You can check it all out here.

Choose to reuse, not recycle

This may seem to go against the point of this article - but it is indeed the point of this thought piece to show you that recycling done correctly makes a big difference - but recyclable doesn’t necessarily mean recycled, so reducing the amount you need to recycle in the first place has an even BIGGER influence 💚

HOW TO CONCLUDE...

While roadside recycling is far from perfect in its current form (we’ll save that for another day), by equipping ourselves and those in our circles with the knowledge of how to optimise our recycling we can make a better, more circular tomorrow a reality. Be considerate with what you buy. Do your best to eliminate single-use. And of course recycle to your best ability where you have no other alternative. Ultimately, it is our hope that this guide acts as an eye-opener to help you improve how you recycle, and crucially, limit what you need to recycle in the first place. By reducing our single-use consumption and swapping out disposables for reusables, we have the power to make a change from the ‘norm’ of wishing away our waste.

We’ve made ditching disposables easy - see what you can swap...


Our motivation for writing this guide came from an unfortunate perspective from someone close to us: "What's the point in recycling? It all goes to the same place...” While this bothered us at first that they could feel this way, we realised that maybe they had just never been convinced that recycling does anywhere near the job it is capable of - and maybe if we do the research, we can spread information to help our readers do a little better. Big movements often start with small beginnings. Hopefully this is yours.

 

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