Data shows that the average person in the UK throws away around 400 kg of waste each year – the equivalent to seven times their body weight. Of the 26 million tonnes of waste produced in the UK, 12 million tonnes is recycled, with a whopping 14 million tonnes ending up in landfill.
With so many of us trying to make a conscious effort to recycle more and help the planet, putting items in the recycling bins has become an everyday habit. But we often put bottles, boxes, paper and plastic into different bins whilst on autopilot, without ever really thinking about how they are recycled at the end. We might think that once we put our recycling into its allocated bins, we have done our bit for the environment. However, there are many regularly used items that actually don’t belong in recycling at all.
Ahead of Earth Day 2023 on 22 April, manufacturing firm Airdri has rounded up the worst offenders.
Used pizza and takeaway boxes
You have just finished a lovely takeaway and then you give yourself a mental pat on the back for conscientiously putting your pizza boxes into the cardboard recycling bin. Great intentions, but unfortunately used and greasy takeaway boxes are difficult to recycle – so much so that some waste disposal services will refuse to collect your bin if these items are present.
Greasy takeaway boxes are unsuitable for recycling, as the cardboard gets turned back into pulp during the process and food grease can have an adverse effect. To avoid contamination, cut the clean tops off your pizza boxes for recycling and put the bottoms in to the general waste bin.
Paper coffee cups
Throwaway and single use paper cups used for coffee, tea and other drinks seem like they should be easily recyclable – but they are not. There are facilities in the UK that can do this, but the vast majority of cups don’t get recycled.
Most disposable cups used for hot liquids come with a plastic coating to make it more durable, and this is very difficult to separate from the paper when it comes to recycling, pulping and reprocessing. If you know your daily coffee habit isn’t going to be changing any time soon, then you might consider using a reusable mug to be kinder to the environment. Many coffee places including big chains will offer discounts and incentives for bringing your own cup to be refilled.
Wrapping paper seems like it should be easy to recycle, and it is one that many of us would throw into our paper recycling without another thought. However, unless it is simple brown wrapping paper like the one you would see in your local Post Office, then it is most likely not being recycled at all.
Wrapping paper is often dyed, laminated and can even come with glitter, plastics and non paper additions. This alone can make it unfit for recycling and combine that with the fact that it usually also has sticky tape attached, it's near impossible to recycle.
Takeaway food often comes with plastic disposable cutlery, which again many people assume is recyclable – a survey carried out by Which found that 60% of people would put plastic cutlery into their mixed recycling. Unfortunately, plastic cutlery is usually made of tricky to recycle polystyrene, as well as being too small for the process and likely to fall out of the load as it is being sorted.
You could be forgiven for thinking that plastic bags can go in the plastics bin to be recycled, after all it sounds like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, they can't and are in fact one of the hardest things to dispose of.
Plastic bags can pose all sorts of problems for the machinery at the recycling plant, often ending up wrapped around parts, including the conveyor belt, and bringing the entire process to a grinding halt.
Plastic bags that end up at landfill are also an issue, as they often disintegrate into small pieces which can be a problem for wildlife and the environment. Switching to reusable bags or using your plastic bags again is a much better option than throwing them away.
When plastic bottles are recycled, they go through a process where they are sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted down and moulded into nurdles – small pieces of plastic about the size of a grain of rice – before being melted again and finally reborn as new plastic bottles. It is a convoluted and expensive process and, according to Oceana, less than 30% of plastic bottles are recycled this way. Instead, they are downcycled to make an item of lower quality, which typically then cannot be recycled again. Better to recycle than just throwaway, but better yet to use a non plastic or refillable alternative.