Weekly Recycling Challenge: Cut Down on Contamination in Your Recycling
You might feel saintly because you’re doing your bit and recycling as much as you can, but do you realise that a lot of what we recycle is often too contaminated to be processed so it ends up in landfill?
This is exactly what happened to a whopping 500,000 tonnes of recycling last year, according to figures released by Defra. This was material that could have been reused, and even worse, it was totally avoidable.
For this week’s recycling challenge, we want to challenge you to make sure you put the right things in your recycling bin, and to make sure they’re as clean as possible before you do!
How does recycling become contaminated?
Recycling is deemed to be contaminated when people put the wrong items in their recycling bins, or they don’t rinse them properly. Hands up who has done this?
Well you may think it doesn’t make a difference but the cost to the environment, and the financial cost, of sending waste to landfill is considerable.
But is recycling contaminated because people are just lazy? That might explain some cases, but the main reason is that people are confused about what they can and can’t recycle. Different councils have different rules, and while they do try to get the message out there, the facts about what you can actually recycle become a bit like Chinese whispers.
Recycling collection systems add to the problem
Local authorities use one of two recycling collection systems:
Kerbside sorting: Recyclables are separated at source. You put your paper, glass, and plastics in different boxes or bins, then they are put into different compartments of a refuse vehicle.
Co-mingled/ mixed dry recycling: Different recyclables are mixed together in one bin then sorted once they get to the recycling facility. Contamination rates tend to be higher when this system is used.
The contamination culprits
What types of materials are contaminating bins all across the UK?
- Nappies and sanitary products are a big source of contamination. They should never be put in your recycling bin; they should go in with your general waste.
- Soiled food packaging with food or liquids still inside is a common contaminator.
- Plastic bags, polystyrene and plastic film can cause problems with the machinery in recycling facilities so they should not be put in recycling bins.
- Crisp packets are mixed materials so they are hard to recycle and should not be put in recycling bins.
What happens to recycling when it’s contaminated?
Sometimes, in cases of heavy contamination, a whole load of recycling might be diverted for processing as household waste, or it ends up in landfill.
Where there is slight contamination, workers at recycling facilities may have to pick out the contaminated items by hand (and as you can imagine, this can be really unpleasant).
What is being done about recycling contamination?
Some councils are coming down hard on people who fail to abide by recycling rules. Some refuse to empty bins that are contaminated, some leave stickers or tags on contaminated bins, some issue fines, and some invest in recycling education campaigns.
The best thing to do is if you’re unsure about what you can and can’t recycle, go to your council’s website to find out. Don’t just do what a lot of other people do and ‘wish-cycle.’ This term has been coined to describe what happens when people don’t know whether something can be recycled but they put it in the recycling bin anyway-wishful thinking.
What can you do to reduce recycling contamination?
- Always check the labels on packaging and if you’re still not clear, go to your local council’s website for advice.
- Leave metal caps and lids on glass jars and bottles.
- Empty and rinse all food and drinks containers.
- Make sure you recycle items from your bathroom too, like shampoo and moisturiser bottles. Most of our recycling tends to be generated in the kitchen, but don’t forget about the plethora of plastic items you have in your bathroom cabinet.
What can you definitely NOT recycle?
- Glass cookware like Pyrex, drinking glasses, and ceramics-these need to be recycled at a proper facility. The same applies to cutlery, crockery, pots and pans.
- Nappies might be made from paper but they can’t be recycled, and neither can sanitary products.