13 June 2019

Waste 101 - How to Recycle Correctly

Ok – rubbish. The big elephant in the room. I know this is probably a really unexciting post for most readers, but I think it’s as important as it is unexciting. Too many people I know are totally confused about recycling, and haven't a clue what actually happens when they throw their trash “away”. And they can’t be blamed for it, either – clear information on recycling is so hard to come by.

So, here’s my 'Waste 101': an attempt at a dummy’s guide to waste and recycling. Please let me know if I’ve forgotten anything.


Anyone who knows anything about recycling also knows that it should be treated as a last resort. I know it’s tempting to chuck everything into the recycling bins and hope that the trash gods will transform it anew. Sadly, that's far from the reality. Not only is recycling an energy-intensive process with its own environmental impact, but some materials are much harder to recycle than others, so a lot of our recycling actually gets sent to landfill.

We need to be doing everything we can to avoid waste in the first place. Start with the three Rs:

Say no to unnecessary packaging (plastic or other). Don’t accept flyers if you don’t want to read them. Say no to free plastic pens and other freebies. Assess every piece of material coming into your life – do I really need this? Accepting these things creates the demand.

Assess your belongings and your buying habits. You probably buy more than you need, thus generating waste. Can you simplify your kitchen cupboards and your wardrobe?

Swap disposable items in your life for re-usable ones. Bring your own bags, coffee cup, containers, water bottle and cutlery out with you. In the kitchen, bathroom and cleaning cupboards, consider refillable containers. Zero Waste Home has some brilliant guidelines for re-using almost anything.


Rotting or composting is really not as widespread as it should be. Did you know that the food waste you throw into the ‘normal’ bins has a huge environmental impact? One consequence is this: it breaks down in the landfill, and without access to oxygen it releases methane, which is far more toxic than carbon dioxide. It’s a huge problem.

Most of the food waste you generate is actually an amazing resource. If correctly composted, it eventually breaks down into rich fertilizer that feeds and nourishes our soils. Check your local scheme for exactly what you can and can’t compost, but generally the following is acceptable: paper tissues, eggshells, fruit & veg scraps, hair, uneaten cooked food, tea and coffee.

And if you don’t have a local composting scheme, consider doing your own composting.

N.B. bioplastics (the ones that are labelled 'compostable' or 'biodegradable') cannot be thrown in normal compost or food waste. More about them in the plastics section below.


OK, so you’ve de-cluttered your home, reduced your consumption, chucked your food waste in the compost, and now you’re ready to recycle the inevitable bits of packaging that remain.

All regions and councils will have their own recycling guidelines – for instance, in some parts of the UK all recycling goes into one mixed bag, in others, materials are separated. Moreover, some recycling schemes will accept all plastics, whereas others will only accept pots and tubs. So, always start by familiarising yourself with local guidelines; maybe print them out and stick them somewhere in your kitchen as a reminder.

If you’re not sure, it’s better to be cautious than throw stuff in the recycling ‘just in case’. Non-recyclable items can ruin otherwise good recycling. Learn to be meticulous!

Everything should be washed before it goes into recycling. A plastic pot covered with the dregs of mouldy hummus is no good. D’you really think the facilities will take the time to wash that out for you? I doubt it. (And even if they do, it’s an unnecessary step that can be avoided). So please, take 2 minutes to rinse out your pots, cans, tubs and lids before throwing them in the recycling.

  • Paper is (supposedly) widely recycled and things like newspapers, office paper, magazines, envelopes can normally be thrown in. Please remove any staples from stapled paper.
  • Waxed paper, like baking paper, usually can’t be recycled.
  • Paper cannot be recycled if it is food contaminated, i.e. dirty pizza boxes, takeaway boxes, or used paper towels. The good news is that some of this ‘dirty’ paper can be cut up and thrown in with the food waste. Double check this with local guidelines. 
  • Tetra-paks (like juice cartons) can sometimes be recycled, but check local guidelines.

  • Metal is actually one of the most recycling-friendly materials. Cans, aerosols, clean aluminum foil, and other household metals should all go in the recycling bins. 
  • Anything bigger, like appliances, should be recycled separately – check your local council for bulky waste schemes.

  • The problem with plastic is that there are SO many different kinds, it’s easy to get confused. In theory, all plastics can be recycled, but most recycling centres only have the facilities to process a handful of the myriad types.
  • From what I’ve observed, it’s more commonplace to recycle ‘harder’ plastics like tubs, yoghurt pots, microwavable trays, and milk containers. It’s less common for facilities to accept ‘softer’ plastics like crisp packets, plastic film, plastic bags etc.
  • Saying that, the best thing to do is check your local guidelines to see what can and can’t be recycled. Once you identify the non-recyclable plastics, do what you can to reduce these from your shopping list and life. 
  • Bioplastics (the ones that look and feel like normal plastic but say 'compostable' or 'biodegradable') should be avoided altogether. Currently, there are no large-scale UK facilities that can process them (and I imagine it's the same worldwide). They can't just be thrown in the normal compost because they need specific conditions to break down. So at present, they're no different (if not worse) than ordinary plastics. Some more info here

  • Mixed materials (like plastic packaging with a metallic film on the inside) normally can’t be recycled.
  • Most councils normally have a garden waste scheme, so please don’t throw your garden waste in the ‘normal’ trash bin, because it can make good compost.
  • Many councils have recycling schemes for bulky waste like old appliances, mattresses and furniture.
  • Recycle textiles and old clothes in charity shops and textile banks.


So that’s it folks – everything that isn’t categorised above goes into the 'normal' bins, that includes:
  • Some plastics
  • Mixed materials
  • Soiled paper that can’t be composted
  • Some food that can’t be composted
Now, do everything you can to reduce the above as much as possible. And it is possible - the zero waste movement is pretty inspiring. See below for links.


Useless – a map of zero-waste shops and refills in London
Zero Waste Home – the ultimate guide to zero waste living
A simple guide to home composting

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