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Top Tips for Effective recycling

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

In the UK, most local councils promote recycling by providing kerbside collection. This makes it easier for us to recycle, but also tempts us to indulge in ‘wish-cycling’, that is, putting random items in the recycling bin in the hope that they might be recycled. Putting the wrong types of material in the recycling collection not only makes more work for the recycling centres but also risks contaminating otherwise perfectly good recyclable material.

Similarly, if you don’t prepare your recyclable items correctly before adding them to the collection – such as by removing food residue – there is a risk that they’ll simply be diverted to landfill.

In this article we take a look at the types of materials that are commonly collected for recycling in the UK, and identify how to ensure that they are actually being recycled rather than ending up back at your local landfill site:

Young children carrying a green recycling bin containing plastic bottles

Top tips for recycling cardboard

Cardboard is a widely recycled material, and is collected by almost all kerbside recycling schemes. However, the downside to recycling cardboard is that it is very easily contaminated, so it is important to recycle it correctly.

Our top tips for successful cardboard recycling are:

  • Check with your local council to confirm what types of cardboard they collect: some will only take paperboard (ie the thin carboard from food packaging such as cereal packets), others will take heavier cardboard and corrugated cardboard as well; and some won’t accept cardboard takeaway food packaging (see below).

  • Make sure that your cardboard is dry, clean and free of grease and food waste.

  • Remove any plastic delivery envelopes or instructions that may be stuck to the box.

  • Remove as much plastic tape as possible. Small amounts of tape are OK, but if the cardboard is covered in an excessive amount of tape, it may be rejected and sent to landfill.

  • Make sure that there are no packing noodles, bubble wrap or polystyrene foam left inside.

  • Flatten out all cardboard boxes so that they take up less space.

Bundle of flattened cardboard boxes ready to be recycled

Recycling Pizza boxes

Pizza boxes (and other cardboard takeaway containers) are a contentious issue. Most kerbside schemes will take cardboard pizza boxes so long as they are clean and non-greasy. It is the presence of grease on the packaging that can ruin a whole batch of cardboard recycling, so it is important to tear off any greasy sections of the box before putting it in the recycling. (You can rip the greasy sections of the pizza box into small pieces and add them to your compost bin or green waste collection.)

However, some councils have become so frustrated with the amount of greasy food packaging contaminating their cardboard recycling that they are now refusing to accept any takeaway food packaging at all. As ever, check with your local recycling scheme to confirm their position regarding pizza boxes.

Tetra Pak cartons

Tetra Pak cartons are used for a variety of liquid products such as fruit juice, milk, smoothies, etc. Although the outside or the carton is made of cardboard, the inside is lined with a waterproof layer made of aluminium and plastic. This makes them tricky (but not impossible) to recycle. They can’t be recycled along with plain cardboard because a totally different process is needed to separate out the cardboard from the other materials.

Only some kerbside recycling schemes accept Tetra Pak cartons, but Tetra Pak collection points exist in other places such as supermarkets and recycling centres. The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment (ACE) provides a useful interactive map to help you find where Tetra Pak cartons (and other similar types of drinks cartons) are recycled in your area.

When you put a Tetra Pak in the recycling, remember to first:

  • Rinse them out.

  • Squash them down so that they take up less room at the collection point.

  • Put the plastic caps back on to prevent them from becoming lost in the recycling process.

Top tips for recycling Paper

Paper is readily recyclable and is accepted by almost all kerbside recycling schemes.

Top tips for paper recycling:

  • Make sure that the paper is clean and does not contain grease or food residues. (Greasy paper can be torn up and added to your compost or food waste bin.)

  • No need to remove every staple or the occasional plastic window from envelopes, as these can usually be removed at the processing stage.

  • Watch out for laminated wrapping paper, because the mixed materials (foil, plastic and paper) can’t be separated. If the paper is shiny, metallic or glittery it can’t be recycled. If you are unsure, scrunch the wrapping paper into a ball – if it bounces back open it contains mixed materials and can only go in your landfill bin. And even if your wrapping paper is just paper, make sure that you remove any plastic sticky tape. (See our YouTube video for more about recycling wrapping paper.)

Top tips for recycling glass

Glass jars and bottles are one of the most widely recycled materials, and are accepted in most kerbside recycling schemes, or can be recycled in bottle banks.

Top tips for recycling jars and bottles successfully:

  • Rinse out any glass containers and ensure they are clean.

  • Remove corks from wine bottles – if they are made from natural cork you can cut them up and then put them in your garden compost bin or green waste bin. Plastic corks need to go in your general waste.

  • Put metal lids back on jars or bottles, including wine bottles (unless your local collection scheme asks you not to). This stops them from getting lost in the recycling process. They will usually be removed during the sorting stage.

Do not mix other types of glass in with jars and bottles in your kerbside recycling. For example, drinking glasses, mirror glass, window glass, Pyrex dishes, etc. This is because they have a different chemical composition, and therefore a different melting point to the glass used in jars and bottles.

Row of empty glass bottles

Top tips for recycling aluminium

Aluminium is an excellent material for recycling, because it can be recycled over and over again. As a metal, aluminium has a relatively high value, which means that it is very widely recycled.

Aluminium kitchen foil and trays

Top tips for ensuring that your aluminium kitchen foil and trays get recycled and not rejected:

  • Remove any food residue before recycling; if there is any grease or any burnt on bits of food that you can’t clean off, then throw the foil away. Don’t add it to the recycling collection where is risks contaminating other items, meaning that a whole batch ends up being consigned to landfill.

  • Squish kitchen foil into a ball; Small pieces of foil are easily lost in the waste sorting process, so it’s best to save them up and then squish them up into a ball and only add it to your recycling bin when it’s at least the size of a tennis ball (the bigger the better). This makes it easier to process.

Aluminium drinks cans

Drinks cans are also made of valuable aluminium and are therefore widely recycled. Just rinse them out first before you add them to your metal recycling.

As a general rule don’t crush your drink cans (unless your local recycling collection scheme specifically asks you to do so). This is because it makes the cans more difficult to sort from other recyclable items at the recycling plant if they are not the expected shape of a drinks can. This risks the cans being misidentified and contaminating other recyclable materials, or being diverted to landfill or incineration. However, if the aluminium cans are collected separately (eg from a recycling bin dedicated to aluminium or drinks cans) then it is usually fine to crush them as they won’t need to be sorted later.

Other aluminium items

Screw caps from wine bottles are made from aluminium foil too and can be recycled. Just screw them back onto the wine bottles when you recycle them.

Collection of aluminium drinks cans

Top tips for recycling food tins

Tins that are used to contain food (such as tomatoes, soup or spaghetti hoops, etc) are usually made from tin-coated steel which, like aluminium, can be infinitely recycled. Like aluminium drinks cans, food tins are very widely recycled.

Top tips for recycling food tins:

  • Rinse out the tins to ensure that there is no food residue.

  • Tuck the lids inside the tins so that they don’t get lost in the recycling process.

  • There’s no need to remove any labels.

  • Don’t crush your food tins. This is because, as with aluminium cans, it can make it difficult for the sorting machines that process the recycling to recognise them by shape. There is therefore a risk that they might be discarded as landfill. However, if the tins are sorted before they are sent for recycling (eg if they are collected from a recycling bin dedicated to tins) then it is usually OK to crush them. If in doubt, don’t crush them.

Plastic recycling: An introduction

There are many different types of plastic, only some of which are able to be recycled. In addition, even if a certain type of plastic is theoretically able to be recycled, it is not always commercially viable to do so. (See our Quick Guide to Plastic Recycling for more about the different types of plastic.)

And finally, only a relatively small proportion of the plastic that we send off to be recycled actually ends up in a UK recycling plant. According to a Greenpeace report in 2022, this could be as little as 12% in the UK. An unfortunate amount gets incinerated (46%) or sent to landfill (25%), or shipped overseas (17%) where it is often simply dumped rather than being processed.

For all of these reasons, our primary aim should be to reduce the amount of plastics that come into our homes as much as possible, and any plastic items that we currently have should be reused for as long as possible before being discarded. We cannot rely on recycling to resolve the issue of waste plastics polluting the environment.

Collection of empty plastic bottles, ready to be recycled

Top tips for recycling plastics

All that having been said, it is still important to recycle plastic where facilities allow. Plastic containers usually have a label printed on them showing what type of plastic it is, this is typically a number inside a symbol of three arrows. Check with your local council which type of plastic, or which types of items, it collects via its kerbside schemes as this varies by area.

Hard plastics

The only types of hard plastic that are recycled with any frequency are:

  • Type 1 (PET) This is typically used for items such single use plastic bottles, jars, food trays and punnets. Empty out containers, rinse them, squash them to save space and put any lids back on.

  • Type 2 (HDPE) is commonly used for detergent and shampoo bottles, milk and juice jugs, butter and yoghurt tubs, etc. Rinse out bottles and containers, replace any lids.

  • Type 5 (PP) is used for items such as ready meal trays, and is sometimes accepted in kerbside recycling. Rinse out any trays before adding them to the recycling.

Note that black items of any type of plastic, such as black microwave food trays and black plant pots, cannot usually be recycled. This is because the automated sorting process at many recycling centres uses light to help identify the type of plastic, and the machines can’t usually ‘see’ black items.

Soft plastics

Soft plastics such as shopping bags, shrink wrap, film lids, plastic food bags etc, can’t be recycled along with hard plastics (such as those listed above) because they tend to clog up the machinery!

They can be recycled but need to be collected and processed separately. They are very rarely accepted in kerbside recycling schemes, but most supermarkets now have collection points for soft plastics. If you don’t have an easily accessible supermarket, over 2,200 local Co-op Stores now collect a very wide range of soft plastics for recycling.

As with other types of recycling, make sure that your soft plastics are clean and dry before depositing them at a collection point.

Top tips for recycling batteries

Batteries contain hazardous materials and are also a significant fire risk when dumped in landfill sites, so you can’t just put them in with your general waste. Batteries can be recycled and contain valuable materials such as nickel, zinc, cadmium and lithium but few kerbside recycling schemes accept them. You therefore need to save up your old batteries and then track down a suitable collection point. Options to try are:

  • Supermarket or electricals shop: By law, any shop or supermarket in the UK that sells more than 32kg of batteries per year should have a collection point for recycling common household batteries.

  • Your local recycling centre: Most recycling centres do take household batteries but check with them first before making a special journey.

  • For large batteries such as car batteries, check with your local recycling centre. Alternatively, a garage or scrap yard may be able to dispose of it safely for you.

Close up view of a large quantity of spent batteries waiting to be recycled

Summary: How to be an expert recycler

From all of the above top tips on recycling, the key takeaway messages if you want to be an expert recycler are:

  1. Check with you local council to find out what materials are collected in your kerbside recycling, and how they prefer them to be sorted.

  2. Only put materials that can actually be recycled in the kerbside collection, otherwise you are wasting your time, making more work for the recycling centre, and risk contaminating other perfectly good recyclable materials.

  3. Rinse out containers and jars before recycling, and remove food remains and grease from other materials. This is especially important for materials such as paper and cardboard which are not heated as part of the recycling process.

But the most important message of all is to try and cut down on the amount of waste that you generate in the first place, especially for plastics which are so problematic to recycle.

Further information

For more detailed information about the different types of plastic and whether they can be recycled, see our blog post:

For more information about recycling wrapping paper, see our blog post:

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