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Blog August 2023

15 (surprising) things that cannot be recycled

Uncertainty is a killer when it comes to recycling; we want to do the right thing and most of us recycle regularly, but with 84% still placing items in recycling that cannot be processed, there’s definitely room for improvement.

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Stacey Piggott Senior Digital Marketing Manager

What is Net Zero and how can recycling help

Everything we use has an environmental impact, from the energy and resources used to manufacture and ship a product, to its effect when we throw it away. Carbon emissions created during production, transportation, and decomposition lead to climate change and global warming.

Alongside ‘reduction’ and ‘reuse’, ‘recycling’ is one important way we can reduce our carbon footprint by minimizing the consumption of virgin materials and keeping resources in circulation for longer.

When the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that we put into the atmosphere are equal to the amount we take out, we will reach Net Zero – an ambition many countries agreed to reach by 2050 under the Paris Agreement.

Are we recycling enough?

In short, the answer is no. Although different regions of the world record varying success rates, the global average recycling rate is just 19%.

That’s not to say people don’t want to recycle. According to the UK’s WRAP Recycling Tracker, around 90% of citizens regularly recycle, indicating that for the most part, recycling is seen as the norm.

Unfortunately, the tracker also reveals that over half of all those questioned still miss opportunities to recycle common items, and worse still, almost nine in ten recycle incorrectly by placing items in recycling that are not accepted.

And that’s a problem, because when items are placed in the wrong bin, or when they haven’t been sufficiently cleaned prior to recycling, they can cause contamination. ‘Wishcycling’, as this is sometimes called, means recyclable resources are unusable and cannot be processed.

According to research by waste management company, Biffa, 17% of England and Wales’ waste cannot be recycled due to contamination. In 2020, it reports, recyclable items placed in the wrong bin accounted for 6.5% of contaminated waste, while non-recyclable items made up 10.4% of contaminates.

How to recycle better: 15 things you shouldn’t put in recycling bins

So, just what are we putting in our recycling bins that shouldn’t be there? Here’s a list of 15 things we commonly put in recycling (but really shouldn’t) and what to do with them instead.

  1. Plastic lids and bottle caps: Surprising as it may seem, plastic lids from containers such as water or milk bottles, are not always recyclable. That’s because plastic bottles are usually made from easily recyclable PET, while plastic caps are made from polypropylene, which can’t be recycled in the same way. Read the information on the side of the bottle to see whether the lid is recyclable or check with your local recycler.
  2. Plastic straws and utensils: Plastic utensils and disposable straws are difficult to recycle, not only because they are manufactured from plastics number 5 and 6, but also because of their size. During sorting, small items like straws and utensils can fall through gaps in handling equipment making them inconvenient to process. Consider replacing these items with reusable straws and cutlery and if you do end up with plastic straws, be sure to dispose of them carefully as they can harm wildlife when discarded.
  3. Pizza boxes: Although pizza boxes are made of cardboard and it seems logical they should be recyclable, they may also be covered in grease, solidified cheese, and crumbs. During recycling, this matter cannot be extracted and may lead to a whole batch of pulp being ruined. Instead, discard greasy, cardboard takeaway containers in the rubbish or compost at home.
  4. Takeaway coffee cups: Nearly all takeaway cups are made from composite materials with a polyethylene liner inside a wet strength cardboard container. While this may be technically recyclable, in practice there are very few recycling plants capable of separating the two materials for recycling. With initiatives such as the Irish ‘Late Levy’ now placing a charge on all single-use coffee cups, it’s definitely time to consider switching to a reusable alternative.
  5. Shopping receipts: Almost all receipts are made from thermal paper which contains BPA. This cannot be recycled and can contaminate the whole batch if it enters the paper recycling process. BPA also resists decomposition making receipts unsuitable for composting. Bearing this in mind, it’s better to ask for no receipt whenever possible, or for an email receipt where this is available.
  6. Black plastic and bin bags: Most black plastic packaging cannot be identified by the optical sorting systems used in plastic recycling plants. This means it is usually sent to landfill or incinerated. Remember, black bin bags cannot be recycled so if you put your recycling into a black bin back, the bin crew might throw the entire bag into the non-recyclable rubbish, even if you leave the bag open. Always use the recycling containers or bags provided by your local recycling service provider instead.
  7. Plastic shopping bags: Most plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene or, for thinner, produce bags, low-density polyethylene. If the plastic is stretchy, it can be recycled, however, check with your provider as these items are more often recycled via drop-off bins at grocery stores and other locations. Wherever you recycle plastic bags, it’s important to bundle your bags together. Individual bags are lightweight and can clog machinery at recycling centres. By combining all your shopping bags, bread bags and sandwich bags into a single bag, you make it easier for staff at the recycling plant to separate them for recycling.
  8. Bubble wrap: Just like stretchy plastic bags, bubble wrap can’t be recycled loose because it tangles with other recyclables and can damage equipment. Of course, bubble wrap can be reused multiple times, but when you do reach the point of recycling, be sure to bundle it with your other plastic bags.
  9. Clothing: Textiles are not often recycled through kerbside collection, however, they can be donated, either for re-sale and re-use via a charity shop, or for textiles recycling, usually through a drop-off collection bin. Damaged clothes and textile waste can then be shredded and made into new items, such as padding for chairs and car seats, cleaning cloths and industrial blankets.
  10. Waxed and speciality papers: Despite being made from paper, waxed paper cannot be recycled because it’s covered with a wax coating that cannot be separated and won’t break down during recycling. This also applies to various speciality papers that have been coated or treated such as metallic, glittery or velvet paper used for gift wrap, greetings cards, or gift bags. Unlike waxed paper, which may harbour food residue and should be placed in trash, these attractive paper products can be reused or saved for future craft projects.
  11. Paper plates, towels, and napkins: Paper products such as paper towels, tissues, and paper plates cannot be recycled because they are contaminated with food, grease, and other liquids. Furthermore, since most tissue paper is made from recycled paper already, it can’t be recycled again as the paper fibres are too short, resulting in low quality pulp. Instead place these items in your rubbish bin.
  12. Household glass: Almost all glass jars are recyclable, including coloured beer or wine bottles, and even non-food bottles used for perfume or face cream. Items such as broken mirrors, vases, ceramics, glasses, or glass cookware are impractical to recycle, however, and can injure facility staff. Some items are also treated with chemicals to make them durable, or heat resistant, which can ruin recyclable material during the melting process. Safely wrap and place this glass in your household waste or take it to your nearest household waste and recycling centre.
  13. Food containers: Plastic pots, tubs, trays, and metal tins can all be recycled via your kerbside collection service; however, they must be clean, otherwise left over food residue can contaminate other recyclables. Labels and lids can all be left on, but plastic film and absorbent pads must be removed and put in the waste bin.
  14. Crisps and sweet packets: Crisp packets are not currently recycled through kerbside collection but can be recycled along with plastic bags and plastic produce bags at selected in-store drop-off points. Alternatively, you can recycle all kinds of plastic confectionery packaging and crisp packets via services such as Terracycle in the UK.
  15. Styrofoam: Products made from styrofoam such as meat trays, coffee cups, or fast-food containers cannot be recycled and do not biodegrade. Place items like this safely into the trash as they can easily break into tiny pieces, harming wildlife and contributing to the rise in microplastics.

Why ‘pre-cycling’ is essential

When items such as those listed above enter the recycling resource stream, they have the potential to contaminate batches of perfectly good recycling.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average recycling contamination rate in the US is 25% — one in every four items.

Worse still, this figure is most likely increasing. In the UK, Biffa’s analysis found that the average contamination rate of recycling waste rose over four years to 17% by the end of 2020. That’s an increase of over 3% in as many years.

As these statistics indicate, it’s clearly not enough to recycle lots; it’s also important to recycle correctly.

By ‘pre-cycling’ or sorting waste correctly prior to collection or cleaning items to remove food residue, it’s possible to maximize your recycling power. Alongside reading packaging labels, this also involves checking local recycling rules, which can differ from country to country or state to state.

Far from curbing enthusiasm, it’s essential to increase global recycling rates, but if there’s one thing we could all do to help right now, it’s to cut out the ‘wishcycling’.

AMCS Group is a leading provider of recycling contamination solutions such as AMCS Vision AI. This innovative solution uses AI technology to identify contamination in recyclable materials enabling recycling providers to track the contamination source. Watch the video below to learn more or download the brochure.

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