Introduction to the issues surrounding recycling:

  • In the UK we recycle on average 1,350,000 tons of water per year

  • 1 tone is equivalent to 25,000 plastic bottles

  • This means we recycle the equivalent of 28.4 billion plastic bottles worth of waste per year

  • If we laid these bottles end to end this would be enough to stretch around the Earth 141 times…

Some quick ways you can improve YOUR recycling:

  1. No bag zone: Keep recycling loose, don’t use bags as they can tangle recycling machinery.
  2. Stop ‘Wishcycling’ – If in doubt, leave it out: Wishful recycling is usually worse than not recycling the item.
  3. Clean, empty & dry: Make sure you empty, rinse and dry anything that is contaminated with anything other than the material itself.
  4. Combined materials are trash: Separate materials before recycling, some mixed material items like coffee cups and crisp packets must be specially recycled.
  5. Know your plastics: Not all plastics are created equal some are hard to recycle, check the packaging and check with your local authority for what you can recycle at home.
  6. Small things big problems: Leave items smaller than a credit card out of the recycling as they can get stuck in machines. Leave lids on containers for them to be recycled.
  7. Teach yourself – Effort now means less effort later: The more you recycle the better you will get at it; you can always check what can be recycled at
  8. Demand change: Vote with your money by buying products that have responsible packaging, sign petitions and encourage businesses and governments to ensure waste management and responsible packaging is a priority.

Waste/Recycling Management Guide:

Introduction to the issues surrounding recycling:

The UK is ranked globally as the 16th best country for recycling with 43.5% of waste being recycled.

Wales as a separate country, ranks 3rd in the world at 60.2% of waste recycled (Close behind Germany 66.1% and Singapore 60.6%). The goal for most countries is to get to the revered 70%.

  • Just over half (55%) of UK households dispose of items in the general waste bin that are collected for recycling.
  • The majority (85%) of UK households add one or more items to their recycling collection that are not accepted locally.
  • Only around 5% of recyclables end up getting rejected post-consumer.
  • Research shows that of the top 10 things that flat mates/house sharers fall out about, 69% cite not cleaning up after cooking and 64% cite flat mates not doing their share of the cleaning. An issue with recycling in student accommodation is the lack of consistency in roles and responsibilities with regards to the storage and presentation of waste for collection.
  • Over 2.8 billion parcels were sent throughout the UK last year, creating a whole lot of packaging. Fortunately, most modern packaging materials are 100% recyclable, and paper and cardboard are the things we recycled most in 2021.

(Sources: Survey conducted in the UK 2021 by WRAP. BBC news.)

reduce reuse recycle


It is always preferred in terms of sustainability to make the first priority to reduce the waste we produce in general. This can be achieved by being conscious over the types of things we buy and how we buy them.

For example, buying things with less packaging means there will be a reduction in the amount of plastics or other materials that we use and therefore need to dispose of. By also doing simple things like having a reusable bag or coffee cup means you won’t need to buy single use items therefore reducing the amount of waste you produce.

trash in a jar


This is the second step in effective waste management. Making sure that you try to reuse anything that you can before resorting to throwing it away. Some things can be reused continuously such as:

Glass jars & containers, plastic containers & bottles (try to get BPA free if possible as this will reduce leaching and staining), clothes/towels/bedding, seeds (harvest the seed when the plant has grown to have more seeds than when you started, bags, and many more.

This also includes selling, lending or donating unwanted items. This also includes repairing things or repurposing things to be used in another way from their original purpose.

reduce waste


This is the last stage of effective waste management which involves correctly disposing of anything which cannot be reused.

This involves checking how the product should be recycled to ensure that it gets to the point of being recycled into its raw materials. Some things are clear on how to recycle them and as simple as putting it in your recycling bin, some are slightly more complicated and require some extra effort. Below we share some information and tips to make it easier to understand how to be better at managing your waste.

Just remember that the effort is for a great cause, which is to reduce the environmental, social and economic impact of things going to landfill.


1. No bag zone

FACT – Each plastic bag is only used for around 12 minutes.

This is one of the most common and innocent mistakes seen. Plastic bags can be a culprit for causing problems with recycling, due to getting stuck and shutting down machines, dissolving into potentially harmful microplastics, or entangling animals.

It is worth noting that in some places, plastic bags filled with recyclables cannot be opened by recycling plant workers and thus may be entirely rejected even if all the contents are recyclable (this sounds wasteful but remember that people put all sorts in the recycling bins including things like blades and needles so safety for the workers is important too).

While standard supermarket style plastic bags are recyclable, they need to be done so at designated recycling points (usually at large supermarkets). A great tip is to have a plastic bag which you can fill with other special items that have the ‘recycle with bags at large supermarket’ recycling information on. You can fill these up slowly over time as these items are uncommon, then go and recycle them all at once every now and again.

zero waste green bag

Top tips: Let’s avoid tangling the machines at recycling plants. Have a designated bag or box to fill with recycling and empty it loose directly into the recycling bin and repeat.

2. Stop ‘Wishcycling’ – If in doubt, leave it out

IN SHORT – Just because you wish to recycle something doesn’t mean that you can. Unfortunately.

Don’t ruin the hard work!

This is something most of us are guilty of, it might seem relatively harmless but can actually create a lot more waste then just leaving the item in question out of the recycling.

One of the worst things you can do is ‘wishcycle’, this is when we optimistically put non-recyclable objects in recycling bins. When this happens, we can contaminate the whole load of otherwise recyclable material (this can be up to a truck load of recycling if it reaches the contamination threshold) which is a real shame.

Different places, organisations, councils etc have various thresholds of non-recyclables that can end up in the recycling. Use this as an insurance policy in case you make an honest mistake, not as an excuse.

Top Tips: Be diligent, check the packaging, check your local authority recycling policy if you are unsure. If you are in doubt, leave it out.

3. Clean, empty & dry

No, that leftover pizza stuck to the cardboard can’t be recycled

Some people don’t realise that food and other things such as liquids can contaminate otherwise recyclable material. For example, food-stained packaging is only recyclable if it is cleaned first, if it is not cleanable then it should go in the general waste.

Theoretically if a material is perfectly clean it could be recycled into the same quality material.

The next question you might have, is how clean things need to be? There are some misconceptions about how clean things need to be. ‘Surely using lots of water and washing up liquid is not very sustainable, right?’. Well, the rule of thumb is to clean items enough to remove any food/residue, but it doesn’t need to be cleaned and polished like your dishes. The idea is to have visibly clean materials, essentially to make sure nothing ruins the material itself and nothing else is contaminated or attractive to rodents or insects etc.

If it is cardboard with grease and food on it for example, don’t recycle it. This could potentially be composted if you have a food waste bin, but a safe bet would be to tear the clean part off and recycle that, then put the rest in the general waste bin.

empty clean dry

Top tips: Rinse packaging straight away before things dry and get stuck to them, it only takes a few seconds. It could save an entire batch going to landfill.

4. Combined materials are trash

FACT – 99.75% of coffee cups are not recycled.

Combined materials are a common problem for recycling facilities. What are some examples of combined materials you say? Well, a lot of common items unfortunately, the main culprits being takeaway coffee cups, crisp packets, laminated paper, paper and bubble wrap packaging and certain food packaging such as sandwich boxes and the classic noodles boxes. Often these materials look easily recyclable which makes them even more confusing. You just have to be observant; you will get to know what these items are quite quickly.

Some items with mixed materials can be separated into different parts some of which can be recycled. Such as those takeaway coffee cups, often the cup itself cannot be recycled at home but the cardboard bit that goes round the sides to stop you burning your hand and the lid can be recycled.

The cups in specialist facilities are actually recyclable and some places provide this service such as some coffee shops however this must be done in store which defeats the takeaway aspect in many cases.


Top Tips: Try to avoid buying things that come in combined materials that cannot be separated. For example, bring a reusable coffee cup to your local coffee shop.

5. Know your plastics

FACT – 1,135,000 tonnes of plastic packaging was recycled in 2019… 1 tonne = 25,000 plastic bottles

As you probably know, unfortunately (for recycling’s sake) not all plastics are created equal. It is an unfortunate reality that there around 40,000 types of plastic out there.

Fortunately for our sanity they have been categorised into 7 types, however this doesn’t make things much easier for recycling facilities. They all have various properties that make each one valuable for different reasons, this same fact means there are different treatments needed for all these plastics to be recycled.

The recyclability of plastic is also one of its key strengths as an extremely resource-efficient material and used plastic should ideally be regarded as a valuable resource rather than ‘waste’. As theoretically plastic should be 100% recyclable. Though in reality this is not the case for a few reasons. Such as difficulty separating all kinds which leads to inevitable mixing, and contamination among other things.

Softer plastics in general are the ones easier to recycle. Anything super thin (like bags and plastic wrap) can be a problem when mixed into regular recycling as it can get tangled in the sorting machines.

A lot of plastic items cannot be recycled at home such as clamshell food containers, films, plastic cutlery, straws and many more. This instantly reduces the number of recyclable things that most people can easily recycle.

Some product labels will say ‘recycle with bags at supermarket’ (or something similar). These items should be put in that extra recycling bag we mentioned earlier (section 1) which can be used for collecting the odd harder to recycle items. This can then be dropped off together at larger supermarkets and taken to specialist recycling plants.

Rigid plastics are recyclable labelled by codes 1 – 7. The higher the number the harder it is to recycle (generally). Most kerbside recycling accepts 1-2 past that it depends (you should check this with your local recycling to be sure.

The plastics which generally can be recycled include: Food containers, household cleaning products, milk cartons, drinks bottles.


Top tips: All this gets complicated but just remember… Check the packaging and check your local authority’s recycling policy.

6. Small things big problems

Lids used to be non-recyclable, since then facilities have improved and they can be recycled, however they must be left on the container.

Small items and very thin items can cause problems in the recycling system. Big machines are used to sort through the various materials and sort them into categories. As you can imagine this is a very difficult thing to do. It doesn’t help that the mix of materials is constantly changing due to people’s consumption habits and business’ use of packaging.

Small things can either fall right through and get lost or cause these machines to jam by getting stuck in the mechanisms. The rule is don’t recycle anything smaller than a credit card at home (unless stated by your local authority). This includes things like straws, bottle caps, coffee pods, plastic cutlery, paperclips, shredded paper and other tiny things. If you know the material is recyclable but not at home collections (like bags, crisp packets etc) then these can go in the bag you have for things that will get recycled at the supermarket (section 1) or specialist recycling plants.

Leave bottle caps on bottles, this solves the problem of them being too small. Containers with the lid on will ensure that everything including the lid is recycled.

Top Tips: Leave small items like lids on containers to be recycled normally. Anything which is separate and is recyclable should be recycled specially, supermarkets will often take things like cereal box liners.

7. Teach yourself - Effort now means less effort later

FACT – 85% of us contaminate our recycling bins with items such as drinking glasses, toothpaste tubes, and plastic film lids.

Did you know? There are around 21 recycling labels used in the UK. It is no wonder why 75% of people in the UK are unsure what various recycling labels mean.

The best way to find out which things can be recycled and where, is to learn for yourself. You can do this by looking on resources like the one below ( The good news is once you learn which items go where you will know that moving forward.

Another way is experience. This is what you are probably already doing if you have tried to improve your waste management skills. Simply this means checking packaging and doing your best to dispose of the items the correct way. The benefit of doing this is you better understand the specific items you tend to use and how best to recycle them.

The more you recycle and check which items go in which bins the more it becomes second nature, and then you will be able to do it without thinking.


Top tips: Try learning what can be recycled and how it should be recycled. Use resources like which aim to make things easier to understand, here you can search the item you are looking for.

8. Demand change

England – 2003 – The Household Waste Recycling Act – With the introduction of this recycling legislation, it became law that local authorities in England provide every household with the collection of at least two types of recyclable materials by 2010

Petitioning governments, organisations, and companies to improve the ability to recycle is a great idea. The more people care about these issues the more pressure these organisations will feel to make change.

Some companies are better than others with putting in effort to ensure more of their packaging is recyclable. Aldi is one supermarket where there has been a conscious effort to ensure items of packaging are made with sustainability in mind. For example, in 2022 their easter egg boxes were made with clear cellulose (from plants) windows in the front instead of plastic, this could be recycled along with the cardboard packaging. As you know from earlier (#4) most combined materials are a problem for recycling. By making the effort Aldi overcame this issue. When you think 80 million easter eggs are bought yearly in the UK this can add up!

A lot of the issues with recycling and recycling rates ends up coming down to manufacturers and their use of many different materials and a lack of consideration of how these can be recycled. As you have seen there are endless types of materials and combinations of these. Particularly with plastic, even some plastics that are the same PET type cannot be recycled together for reasons like colour and different material make ups.

One option we have as consumers is not to buy certain things or to speak up and let it be known that we care about what materials are used and the impact they have. Although companies make the products, they will listen up when their customers demand change. There are always other companies ready to capitalise when we demand changes, it might cost more or take more time to do the research at first. But once a certain amount of people demand change then it becomes expected from companies and governments to adapt.

demand recycling

Top Tips: Vote with your money and choices, sign petitions, show your support during national days such as recycling week (17-23 October 2022) and food waste action week (6 – 12 March 2023).

Thank you for reading, use the recycling resources you have available and spread the positive information to your friends and family.

Look out for more upcoming news and information around sustainability topics…