Many of us are familiar with recycling. It’s an impactful habit that makes a difference every day. The challenge is that local council recycling can be incredibly confusing. What is accepted varies from county to county (even town to town!), is often limited, and it’s reported that much of what we try to recycle through standard schemes nowadays gets thrown in landfill anyway.
Why are there so many obstacles to our items being recycled, and what can be done to ensure more products and packaging aren’t thrown ‘away’ to landfills or incinerators (where rubbish goes to burn)?
What is recycling?
Recycling is the collection of discarded items (also known as ‘waste’) and their transformation into material for new products. Recycling reduces the use of new, ‘virgin’ material and the need to extract additional resources from the earth.
However, unlike waste to energy (using discards as a fuel source for heat or electricity) or upcycling (changing the function of an item without breaking it down), recycling breaks down recovered material to build it back into something entirely new.
So, what’s the problem?
Even if something is technically recyclable (more on this shortly!), there are several steps between it being thrown away and being transformed into a new product.
Aluminium, for example, is endlessly recyclable with strong demand all over the world. However, when it comes to plastic, companies often go for virgin (new) over recycled. That’s because oil is currently cheap (approximately 4% of the world's oil production goes into the production of plastic*) and recycling costs more money to collect, transport, sort, and process into a reusable form.
Generally, if the costs are greater than what a material can be profitably sold for (this is the case with most plastics today), it is considered non-recyclable. Above all, recycling is a function of supply, so if manufacturers aren’t buying recycled materials to produce new items, there is no end-market for the material, and public recycling programmes for said materials don’t exist.
This has come into even sharper focus with the recent tariffs on foreign rubbish in China and other South Asian countries, covered extensively in mainstream news. Western regions such as the United Kingdom had long been sending our recyclables to those countries to supply their manufacturing, and now that they aren’t buying, our ‘recyclables’ have nowhere to go!
As a result, public recycling is a bit of a mess. Single-stream recycling programmes (where all recyclables are collected in one bin instead of separated) cause cross-contamination, and good-intentioned residents often resort to ‘wish-cycling’ (or, aspirational recycling) because they aren’t sure what is accepted.
Everything from car parts, bicycles, 5-gallon pails, garden hoses, working smartphones and laptops, even an actual German Enigma machine from World War II, have been extracted from recycling lines as a result of poor separation.
Discouraged, confused, and, to no fault of their own, generally uninformed about the ins and outs of recycling, people all around the world say they recycle, and yet, the UK’s average recycling rate is just 45%**.
What can I do to recycle more?
Public recycling is economically motivated, so most common items aren’t accepted in your regular recycling bin. However, TerraCycle® proves that everything is technically recyclable, including sweets and snack wrappers, plastic packaging, shoes, razor blades and broken toys.
Even the taboo, like old chewing gum, dirty nappies, and cigarette butts - the most littered item in the world and one for the largest sources of ocean plastic pollution - can be recycled into formats manufacturers and brands use for new production.
Recycling is expensive, and public recycling is funded by taxes. The way TerraCycle® works around these limitations is through partnerships with conscious companies, who create first-of-its-kind National Recycling Programmes, many of which are free for consumers to use.
For products and packaging that don’t have a brand-sponsored recycling solution, the Zero Waste Box™ system has you covered. This is a convenient and all-inclusive option for households, schools, businesses, facilities, and events looking to lighten their footprint.
Simply select and order a Zero Waste Box based on what you want to recycle, then collect your waste and ship it back with a prepaid return label:
The key reason TerraCycle® and Zero Waste Box™ are able to recycle almost everything is the fact that someone is willing to pay for it. More and more, the world is waking up to the fact that public recycling is on the decline, so by creating access to solutions, TerraCycle® aims to show the world the magic of putting more material to good use.
Here are some additional tips on recycling correctly through your own local council recycling:
- The most important aspect of recycling correctly is knowing exactly what your local council accepts. Don’t be a ‘wish-cycler’! Go to your local council’s website, call or email them to learn more.
- To find out what type of plastic a container is made of, look for the Resin Identification Code (RIC) at the bottom: a triangle made of arrows containing numbers 1 through 7. These are NOT ‘recycling numbers’ of which there is no such thing, and they do not equal recyclability.
Here are some examples of items that fall into the Resin Identification Code (RIC) categories:
Beverage bottles and personal care packaging. Widely recyclable by local councils if clear or white.
Milk jugs, shower gel bottles, cream tubs. Widely recyclable by local councils if clear or white.
#3 V (Vinyl)
Cosmetics containers, PVC piping, protective clamshells. Not recyclable via your local council.
Squeeze bottles and tubes, plastic films and bags. Not accepted by local council recycling.
Shampoo and conditioner bottles and product tubs. Sometimes accepted by local council recycling.
Glassware containers or protective packaging for fragile items such as cosmetics. Not accepted by local council recycling without a dedicated take back programme.
Multi Material packaging, flexible plastics, bioplastic and compostable plastic. Not recyclable via local council recycling without a dedicated take back or composting programme.
Many local councils accept #1 or #2 white or clear bottles or jars (with caps, pumps, and spouts removed), aluminum containers, and clear glass with no attachments or added plastic. Again, this varies by region, so please check with your own local council for what is accepted.
Coloured plastic and small and complex items are generally non-recyclable. However, nearly everything not accepted by local councils can be recycled by TerraCycle® or through Zero Waste Box™.
Still confused about recycling? Ask us anything in the comments below!