The Recycling Process: Only 45% Of What You Recycle Actually Gets Recycled 😳

Many of us – regardless of whether we’re conscious consumers or not – see recycling as an inevitable part of waste disposal. In fact, some local authorities fine you for not properly recycling.

On the surface, recycling is a good thing – for the environment and the economy. But when you look at the fact that the UK recycles a maximum of 45% of its waste, we’re not doing as well as we should be.

But why is this? To understand, we need to look at how the recycling process works, where it fails, and what we as consumers can do to help.

How Does Recycling Work?

The recycling process is pretty simple. We put rubbish in our bins, which are then collected. Although it differs by area, there’s at least some separation of products at this level. Some places just have recycling and general waste, whereas others have quite a strict separation before collection.

This waste is then taken to sorting facilities where it’s broken up into categories.

These are typically:

  • Plastic
  • Metal
  • Glass
  • Paper and cardboard

Machines and people separate rubbish into different categories, and part of this process involves rejecting stuff that can’t be recycled. You’d be amazed at how much can be thrown out during this stage; we’ll discuss this more below.

After separation, waste is sent to processing facilities where it’s turned into new materials. For plastic and aluminium, this generally means melting it down. Cardboard and paper are turned back into pulp before being processed into different products. For the most part, this is the end of the line for most recycled waste. But not all of it.

Recyclable materials are often graded, which determines to what extent they can be processed. Cardboard is a great example of this in action because there are only so many times you can recycle paper. As the fibres break down, the material loses structural integrity, meaning it’ll only make worse quality products. Glass and metal, on the other hand, can be recycled infinitely without any loss.

It starts to become a problem when you look at plastic. Plastic waste is graded by quality depending on the type and how easily it can be recycled. In theory, it’s then sent to processing plants to become new products. But as you might remember from the news in 2021, these plants don’t have to be in the UK.

British sources were found to be shipping plastic waste to Malaysia, where it just sat around. This is because it was deemed unrecyclable, and the problem was simply shifted to a different country. Amazingly, the UK is the second-largest exporter of plastic waste in the world, despite us appearing to have a decent recycling network.

But why is this? The bottom line is that the UK just doesn’t have enough recycling centres for the amount of waste it produces. Shipping it abroad unfortunately means recycling figures can be skewed because it’s not being burnt or put into landfill. This is what ultimately happens to any recyclable waste that can’t be processed.

Why Isn’t Waste Recycled?

As a consumer, you put your cardboard, plastic and glass in the bin, and you’ve done your bit, right? Well, not necessarily. The biggest reason why some products can’t be recycled is contamination.

Simply put, contamination means there’s something in the recycled material that can’t be processed. The main issue is food residue, such as a greasy pizza box, a plastic bottle of vegetable oil, or toothpaste tubes. But it can also include things like non-recyclable labels and incorrect materials (such as glass in plastic).

Some products, such as pizza boxes, can’t really be cleaned because of the material they’re made from. On the other hand, toothpaste tubes (provided they’re recyclable) can be washed at home before going into the recycling. Unfortunately, most toothpaste tubes are still mixed materials, meaning they need to go in your general waste.

It’s theoretically possible for processing facilities to sort out contamination. However, they don’t because it’s expensive, and recycling isn’t a particularly lucrative business. This means it’s easier – and more cost-effective – for facilities to just throw away contaminated recycling, typically into landfill or incinerators. Over 300 million tubes of toothpaste are thrown in landfills every year in the UK, and it takes 500 years for each tube to decompose - meaning that every tube you have ever thrown in the bin (think about how many just for a second) are still sitting in landfills today!

But it goes beyond straightforward cost. Contamination can expose facility staff to hazardous materials and it can lead to machines breaking down. At the very least, contamination involves more processing through cleaning and further separation. It means there’s very little point in facilities doing all this, which is why they throw contaminated rubbish away.

Another massive issue with contamination is plastic. The plastic we use is generally either thermoplastic or thermoset plastic. About 75% of all plastic used is thermoplastic, such as drinks bottles, and it can be easily remoulded into new products. Thermoset plastics, on the other hand, are very difficult to recycle because it doesn’t change shape when exposed to heat.

Of course, not many of us know the difference between them, meaning we throw all our plastic into the same bin. This causes contamination, meaning anything from a bin’s worth of plastic to an entire container can be thrown out.

Toothpaste Tubes - The Perfect Awful Packaging

While contamination is a big issue in recycling, another is mixed packaging. There are a couple of perfect examples of why this is so damaging, such as juice cartons, crisp tubes and, of course, toothpaste tubes.

Toothpaste tubes are commonly made from mixed materials, primarily aluminium and plastic. Although these can be recycled on their own, they’re bonded together to form the packaging, and separating them is very difficult and expensive. Check out this interesting video to understand more about mixed material packaging and how difficult it can be to recycle.

A lot of companies are switching to just plastic tubes (the aluminium is to keep the product fresher for longer). While this is a step in the right direction, it just falls into the plastic recycling trap described above. Unsurprisingly, the best option for you as a consumer is to just cut out the packaging altogether by switching to a brand like GudYu!

Doing Our Bit to Help with Recycling

There’s plenty we can do as consumers to be more responsible with our recycling. Here are some of the easiest tips that can make the biggest difference to how much waste actually ends up being recycled.

1. Get rid of contaminants

One of the biggest issues with recycling is contamination. Luckily, it’s also one of the easiest to prevent. The first step is to understand the most common contaminants:

  • Food residue, such as oil, grease, toothpaste, and dried on food
  • Non-recyclables, such as packaging labels and that bit of paper under meat
  • Mixed materials, such as paper labels on cans or bottle tops

Then, it’s simply a case of knowing how to remove contaminants. For example:

1. Wash food packaging where possible. Rinse out bottles and plastic containers (provided it’s hygienic to do so).
2. Remove labels and tape from cardboard boxes, and tear off greasy parts from food boxes. These should go in your general waste.
3. Separate recyclables as much as possible, such as removing corks from bottles and peeling off paper labels.

Finally, be aware of the different types of plastic. Thermoset plastics are fairly easy to spot. Silicone and polyurethane are the most common, and some examples include electrical products, kitchenware and fabrics. Rather than putting these in your recycling bin, take them to a local waste disposal centre.

2. Reduce Consumption

An obvious way to improve recycling efforts is to simply reduce your consumption. Glass and metal are preferable materials if you do need to buy single-use or long-term products, which is why our GudYu tabs are delivered in ‘life-tins’ made from aluminium. However, make sure you wash them when you do eventually dispose of them.

Also, consider switching to organic and biodegradable alternatives to common products. For example, try loofah washing up sponges or a wooden scrubbing brush.

3. Understand the Symbols

Understanding packaging symbols is vital for knowing what products can be recycled, and where. It’ll also help to know what your local authority accepts in its recycling, which you can find out by checking its website. Annoyingly, there’s some inconsistency between councils.

You should also check your local supermarkets and recycling centres to see what non-curbside waste they’ll accept. For example, a lot of supermarkets have soft plastic collection, which includes shopping bags, bread bags, cereal packets, and more. Some even accept crisp packets and other mixed material packaging.

While using these facilities won’t guarantee your rubbish is recycled (the issue of contamination still exists, after all), it at least reduces the amount you’re sending to landfill. On the surface, it sounds like a lot of extra effort, but it really isn’t when you consider the fact that you’re already going to the supermarket.

Another thing to look out for is biodegradable packaging. There isn’t an established symbol for it in the UK (although there is for home compostable). Instead, most packaging just says it’s biodegradable. Our packaging, for example, is completely biodegradable, which we think is a more sustainable option than recyclable due to the risks mentioned above.

Biodegradable packaging goes into landfill waste. While this might sound like a step backwards, it isn’t. Our packaging completely breaks down within 6 months, meaning all that’s left is some organic residue. We think this is a better option than using recyclable packaging, which may or may not actually be recycled, and takes centuries to break down if it ends up in landfill (or the ocean).

4. Switch to Companies that Make an Effort

Sure, we can reduce consumption in some areas, but there are still plenty of necessary products we need to buy. For these products, look for companies that specifically use recyclable or biodegradable packaging. Ideally, also use companies that have long-term storage packaging for their products. This is typically made from metal or glass, so it’s recyclable when you’re done with it.

Plastic-free packaging is another obvious suggestion. After all, plastic is arguably the biggest issue with recycling, as only 9% of it is actually recycled. If you do need to buy things in plastic, make sure you go the extra mile by finding out where it can be recycled.

Reducing Consumption with GudYu

Here at GudYu, we’re serious about recycling and doing our part. This is why our toothpaste tabs come in biodegradable packaging, and why we supply you with a lifelong aluminium storage tin that can eventually be recycled, once you have upcycled it over and over!

So, try making the switch to our toothpaste tabs as part of your wider recycling efforts. While we can’t entirely cut out our reliance on packaging, we can at least cut down on how much we use.