The Reality of Recycling Project
Only half of the plastic placed in these sample bins could be recycled via curbside collection!
Half ‘recycled’ plastic not re-used
Making a conscious choice to do things for the good of the planet should be easy! Environmentally-motivated people like you are out there doing what you can in a busy world, and recycling is a big part of that. When faced with so many different types of packaging, which may, or may not, be recyclable, it can seem like a lot of work to do the right thing!
The consequence of getting it wrong is more waste to the landfill or shipped overseas; some if it, potentially ending up in the ocean. Our findings suggest that the Government target to recycle 50% by 2020 looks to have been missed. Meaning more than half of our efforts could have been for nothing! The Resources and Waste Strategy policy for England was published in 2018, since then there has been little information about whether or not targets have actually been met. The latest information suggests by 2035 the aim is to increase recycling by another 15%. A target that might be more easily reached if clearer guidance was given and manufacturers and retailers stopped labelling which seems designed to confuse.
The kerbside recycling collections of different local councils vary wildly. Add to this misleading recyclability claims and logos on the packaging and you have a recipe for the confusion we all face. In an attempt to uncover some facts about what is actually recycled, we rolled up our sleeves and got stuck into the trash! Ten local households in Newcastle donated the contents of their recycling bins to find out if they were getting it right.
1,328 individual pieces of recycling between 10 local bins in Newcastle were counted. In this survey, every 2-person household was responsible for 133 pieces of packaging for every bi-weekly recycling collection, of which more than 30% was a plastic waste! With over 7 subcategories of plastic and only 2 commonly recycled, it became quickly evident that plastic is the biggest problem.
Waste as % from survey total.
We found that only half of the plastic placed in these sample bins could be recycled via curbside collection. Here’s why…
The biggest offender found in this survey was LDPE Low-Density Polyethylene aka postal packaging, freezer food bags, bubble wrap, and stretchy plastic bags in the most common forms. Unfortunately, LDPE is a contaminate of the main types of plastic which are recycled via curbside collection. These packages often come with a logo that suggests they can be recycled, but all that really means is that in theory, it is possible. In reality, it rarely is via kerbside collection. However, most large supermarkets offer collection points for this type of plastic where it can be.
Black plastic is sometimes made from PET, a commonly recyclable type of plastic found in food trays, however, when black in colour it is not recyclable via curbside collection. These are the ones to avoid including in your recycling bin. Their presence can lead to whole bags of recycling being unnecessarily discarded because of cross-contamination. The reason being is NIR (near infra-red) signalling systems used to identify plastics at recycling centres cannot detect the dark colour. They can’t filter these plastics into the correct category and so the whole batch is dumped. If the waste is contaminated with black plastic it has no commercial value as it cannot be reformed into a new product.
Crisps Packets are pretty confusing things that look like foil and one could assume would be recycled along with other metals. The problem is that they are in fact made from a metalised plastic film that mixes two types of plastic together.
Polypropylene, cellophane, and foil combined make up most of the crisp packets in the UK. Due to the high melting point of polypropylene, it’s difficult and costly to separate, meaning cross-contamination and therefore cannot be recycled via our council collection. The scale of the problem is frightening as the UK alone is apparently responsible for 6 billion crisp packets per year!
If not via the council curbside recycled then what can we do?
REDUCE - buy loose, buy less! Look around for unpackaged items wherever possible, or search for products in more easily recyclable containers such as glass or paper.
REUSE - Refilling and repurposing packaging! Refilling bottles and jars in your home just got simpler, with our doorstep service leave your bottles out and we will refill them for you. You could also give your containers a new lease of life by decorating them as a pen pot, planter, candle holder to name a few.
RECYCLE- Supermarket collections will take plastic bags and other LDPE type plastics. Find your local Terracycle, a specialised recycling centre that collects the less commonly recycled forms of plastics in bulk to then recycle.
Our local councils in Newcastle, Tyneside, and Northumberland as standard all recycle PET 1. These are most commonly in the form of drinks bottles and clear food trays. It’s the type of plastic that you can hear crunches when you compress it and often has the triangle logo with a 1 as listed earlier. Secondly HDPE plastics such as milk cartons, and some take away cartons that bear the triangle with a number 2 can be recycled via our local curbside collection. Cereal box liners are also mostly made from HDPE, recognisable by their cloudy whitish colour, unlike PET 1 which is often clear. However, both plastics can be made into many other colours, but any dark or black versions would be discounted from curbside processing.
Yoghurt pots and margarine tubs are generally made from a third type Polypropylene which without cross contamination (like in crisps packets), has a fairly high commercial value that is beginning to be more widely processed via curbside collection. Both Newcastle and Tyneside Council will accept margarine tubs and yoghurt pots, but those of you in Northumberland will be disappointed to know they are not accepted there at the moment.
It’s key to remember that the reality of recycling is all about how possible it is to make another item out of the waste. There has to be an end market for the waste otherwise it just doesn't get utilised. Plastics go through complex chemical processes molding, extrusion or compression to create products for a multitude of purposes. Once formed they fall into one of the categories listed earlier, and need to be recycled with the same type in order to retain their commercial value. Investments to recycle more types of plastic will only be made if it is commercially viable for the council to do so.
Not currently recyclable via curbside for Newcastle, Tyneside, and Northumberland-
Newcastle and Tyneside;
Crisps packets/ biscuit packets
Plastic Film (cling film)
Hard plastic toys
Birthday and Christmas Cards with glitter
Foil/plastic gift wrap
Plastic Carrier Bags
Tin Foil or Foil Trays
We hope this helps you navigate the grey areas a little better and you're on your way to a plastic-reducing journey for the good of our planet.