Recycling bin filled with waste

8 ways to be a better recycler

Recycling is now part of our everyday routine, but are you making these common mistakes that could undo all your hard work?

Cardboard boxes, cans and tins, glass jars – not to mention plastic bottles – waste from our kitchen (and beyond) soon starts to stack up. The most recent figures reveal we produced just under 27 million tonnes of household waste in 2017. 

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The good news is that 70% of this waste can be reused or recycled, but the bad news is only 45% of it is actually sent for recycling. So what can you do to be a better recycler?

1. Think about recycling before you buy

The very start of the recycling process should be when you’re considering whether to buy something in the first place. For example, if there’s an option to buy a product in a container that’s easily recyclable, such as cardboard, over something made from black plastic, then opt for the one that won’t end up in landfill. 

Check what can and can’t be recycled before you go shopping. 

Layered salad served in a kilner jar

2. Reuse rather than recycle

Recyling is a great idea, but it’s even better to reuse items – recycling involves using extra energy to break down and reform something into a new product, but reusing it means just that. 

Wash out jars to reuse them – and save money on fashionable storage jars, keep ‘trigger’ spray bottles for cleaning products or watering plants, and repurpose plastic tubs for storing smaller items like screws, hair clips or make-up.

For larger and unloved items like equipment, you can list them on sites like Freecycle so they go to a new home instead of the local tip. 

3. What does your local council recycle?

It’s often a postcode lottery when it comes to what can be recycled. As a general rule, bottles, cans and paper can be recycled in most areas. However, your local council may take other items, such as foil, empty spray cans or perfume bottles, too. Find out what you can put in your bins to avoid the whole lot being contaminated and sent to landfill. 

If your local council doesn’t recycle items such as crisp packets or food pouches, you may be able to drop them off at a local collection centre.

4. Put recycling bins in every room

A simple way to ensure you’re recycling everything you can is to have recycling bins, even just a bag hooked over a door handle, in every room. When you finish a shampoo bottle or empty a printer cartridge, for example, this means you’re much more likely to separate out your rubbish and put it into the correct bins.

Not sure which bin to use? Check the recycling symbols on all packets, packaging and bottles before throwing them away. 

A compost bin in a kitchen setting filled with food waste

5. Get composting

Recycling isn’t just about plastic and glass – your food waste can also be put to good use as compost. If you have a compost heap at home you can put the following in your bin: 
•    raw fruit and vegetable peelings, like potato skins
•    teabags – check if they contain plastic and if so, empty the tea leaves out and throw the bags away
•    eggshells – these provide minerals for the compost
•    grass cuttings, weeds and garden trimmings
•    egg boxes and shredded or torn up paper – these break down more slowly and allow important air pockets to form in the compost

Don’t add any meat or dairy or pet poo to a compost heap, as these can lead to pests, like rats, and unpleasant smells.

You don’t even need a garden to become a composter. You could buy an indoor compost bin like this bokashi system, while some community gardens or allotments may have composters you can contribute to. 

If your council collects your food waste then you can add more items as this waste will go into a different type of composting system such as an anaerobic digester or an in-vessel composting system.

•    any cooked or raw meat, fish and bones
•    dairy

If you find yourself with compostable packaging it should tell you what kind of system it can be composted in.

Related content: 
How to compost food at home

6. Avoid contamination

OK, contamination is a strong word – there’s no nuclear fuel leak involved – but in recycling terms, contamination means the wrong items getting mixed in with your recycling. And when that happens, the whole lorry load may get sent to landfill.

To avoid contaminating your recycling, make sure you know what your local council can and can’t take away, rinse out any jars, tins and bottles with washing-up water (using the dishwasher may waste more energy) and make sure any non-recyclable film lids from yogurt pots or ready meals have been removed and thrown away separately.

7. To squash or not to squash?

The biggest component in many recyclable items is air, so squashing down boxes, cartons and plastic bottles in your recycling bin means you can fit a lot more in. In fact compacting your rubbish means it could take up a third less space, keeping more lorries off the road. 

However, don’t crush your drinks cans. Recycling machines rely on material, size and shape to sort items properly but if a can is crushed, the machine may not be able to identify it. The can could then end up in the non-recyclable pile, and taken to landfill. 

8. Buy recycled items 

Recycling your food packaging is very admirable, but you can also buy items made from recycled materials. This means jars made from existing glass bottles, cans from old cans, or plastic bottles created from recycled plastics. Check the label to see if it’s made from 100% recycled materials or 100% recycled plastic

Watch out for the phrase ‘100% recyclable’ though – this only means a product can be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it has been. Unfortunately, brands are now aware that ‘100% recyclable’ sounds much more impressive than ‘contains 0.25% recycled material’. So, check the packaging before you hit the checkout, and you’ll become a better recycler in more ways than one.

More on recycling and packaging

Recycling symbols explained
6 pieces of packaging to avoid
10 tips for reducing your plastic waste
Reduce, reuse and recycle your plastic packaging
How to reduce food packaging waste

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Paul Allen is a former BBC environmental editor and a director at Lark. Find him on Twitter @larkingly