Recycling is a way to turn unwanted materials into new ones. It helps to reduce the need for virgin raw materials in manufacture, as well as reducing the amount of waste for disposal. Recycling can also save energy, as reprocessing waste materials, such as glass or metal, often uses less energy than processing the raw materials initially.

Estimates vary but most believe people believe that around 40-50% of our household waste can be readily recycled. In 2008/9 the recycling rate in England was 37.6%. This figure includes composting of garden waste and reuse of items such as furniture.

Where recycling uses more resources (materials and energy) than making goods from scratch, it makes more sense to deal with the waste in a different way, for example to burn it and recover some of its intrinsic energy recovery which can replace energy produced from fossil fuels. This applies to items such as food-contaminated light weight packaging such as the wrapper round meat or cheese. To transport, sort and clean it to enable it to be recycled would take more energy and resources than the recycled material would yield.

What’s in your bin?

How much of the contents of our bin we could potentially recycle depends on the goods we purchase and throw away, as well as how carefully we separate the recyclable materials to keep them clean.

Clean separated materials are easier to recycle and can be sold for higher prices than materials which have been mixed up with rubbish. That is why most councils provide separate containers for recyclable materials. If old newspapers are used to catch drips from a paint pot, or to line a cat’s litter tray, they will not be suitable for recycling because they are too contaminated. Similarly mixing wet kitchen waste with other materials reduces the chance that they can be recycled.

Things such as newspapers, magazines, cardboard, metal cans, plastic bottles and glass (check what your local council collects) can either be put in the kerbside recycling collections or taken to your nearest Household Waste Recycling Centre.

The recycling process

We often say we have recycled our rubbish when in reality all we have done is put it out for the council to collect. That’s just the first stage of the process. Recycling is a multi-stage industrial process. The mixed recyclable materials collected through the kerbside recycling collection scheme, or delivered to a Household Waste Recycling Centre, are usually taken to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) where they are weighed, then sorted into type of material (paper, plastic etc). The sorting typically uses a mixture of mechanical and manual methods, with teams of people picking items from a moving conveyor belt. The sorted materials are then baled and transported to the appropriate reprocessing facility which, for example, might be a paper mill, a metals smelter or a glass manufacturer.

The reprocessing facility needs to be specially adapted to handle this ‘secondary’ material which is more variable in nature than virgin materials. It is not usually possible to handle collected secondary materials in the same manufacturing process as virgin materials, which means that using recycled material to make new goods involves additional investment in equipment.

Once the recycled material has been processed into, say, new paper or glass, and used to print newspapers or filled with drinks, it is delivered to shops where someone must buy it – only then has the recycling ‘loop’ taken place.

Why can’t we recycle 100% of household waste?

That is just not feasible because of the variable nature of our waste – as a look in your bin will show. There’s not much we can do with things like sticky meat wrappings, broken toys, old biros, stripped wallpaper and fish bones.

Achieving higher recycling needs householders to separate out all the materials which could be recycled or composted, to stop them being contaminated by other waste. Even people who are already putting out material for recycling can usually sort out more, or do so more often. If everyone separated all their metals, glass, plastic bottles, paper, cardboard and green waste we could achieve really high recycling rates – but never 100%.

Packaging and Recycling

Over 60% of all UK packaging used by households and industry is recycled. This includes sales packaging (that protects the goods we buy), secondary packaging (that groups sales packaging together) and transport packaging.

Councils provide collection schemes, through kerbside collection, banks and recycling centres for more than 85% of sales packaging.