Recycling Etiquette

Why is recycling provision so variable across the UK?

The government does not specify how recycling targets should be met, so it’s up to the local authority to implement schemes suited to their area. Services and facilities thus vary greatly, from separated waste collection to the single kerbside “green box” system. Variation seems endless, and it’s due to the following:

  • Cost – Investment in new recycling facilities is expensive, so cash-strapped councils stick to established recycling processes, (paper, glass).
  • Targets – Statutory recycling targets are weight-based, shifting focus onto heavier waste streams (glass, metal) at the expense of lighter plastics.
  • Logistics – Collection can be problematic in rural (long distances between homes, scarcity of recycling facilities) and urban areas (limited space, tower blocks).
  • No nationwide framework – Industry bodies, charities and campaign groups encourage best practice but there is still a lack of government guidance.

Which type of collection is best?

Recycling collection schemes aim to, firstly, divert more waste from landfill and, secondly, facilitate efficient, profitable recycling. However, the debate rages on the proper method for meeting these targets:

The case for “co-mingled” collections

A 2005 study by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) showed that the quantity of paper collected for recycling rose when collections moved from single-material to multi-material. Clearly, separating recyclables takes time, whereas co-mingled (mixed waste) collections are easier for the householder, and boost overall recycling levels.
To collect the material accepted in co-mingled schemes individually, kerbside collection lorries would need to be highly compartmentalised. Co-mingled kerbside collections reduce the number of trips householders make to recycling centres. Both factors make co-mingled collections more energy-efficient.

The case for separation

Costs increase as more collection and separation is required for the recovery process. Furthermore, co-mingled waste leads to an increased risk of contamination. Different types of material are in contact with each other, and a single kerbside box may result in householders being less attentive when sorting recyclate. The recycling box becomes more of a second dustbin, with hygiene and cross-contamination both issues to be considered.

The solution?

A good compromise is the dual bag method adopted by several local authorities. Some councils provide households with two bags – a red one for plastics and metal, a black one for paper, card and textiles. Partial separation makes the process more efficient for the council, without placing a burden on householders.

How can I improve the way I recycle?

To reduce contamination and improve recycling efficiency, wash and squash!


  • Scrape out any food remains/pour away excess liquid.
  • Rinse the container (use your washing-up water)
  • Don’t put recyclate in the dishwasher – no need to waste resources to achieve an unnecessary level of cleanliness!


  • Crush metal cans.
  • Squeeze plastic bottles flat to expel as much air as possible.

These steps help prevent contamination and reduce the volume of recyclate, making collections more energy efficient.

What about lids, rings and labels?

If you can remove labels and lids from glass jars and bottles, that’s great, but don’t worry too much because, in the recycling process, the items are re-washed. After crushing, any non-glass objects are removed.

Removing the caps and lids from plastic containers is more important. Plastic caps are often made from a different polymer type, and therefore have a different a melting point when compared to the plastic used for the bottle itself. Too many lids will contaminate the load, so remove and throw away plastic caps where possible. The plastic ring around the neck of the bottle can be left on – a minimal amount of contamination is tolerated.

Remove paper clips, staples and plastic envelope windows from paper. Also remove excessive amounts of tape and labelling from cardboard packaging. Small amounts won’t affect the recycling process unduly.

Can I recycle soiled paper?

Paper fibres cannot be recycled if they are contaminated with food. Here are a few tips:

  • Put greasy wrappers into your compost/main rubbish.
  • Tear out contaminated portions (e.g. a cheesy pizza box lid), and recycle the clean remainder.
  • Use tissues as compost, as heir dense fibres make them unsuitable for paper recycling.

How do I know what I can recycle?

Check out recycling provision in your area by visiting Recycle Now. If you are unsure, contact your local authority for details. Ask to speak to the Waste Minimisation Team or Recycling Officer – contact details are included in the Recycle Now search.

Plastics are a particular area of confusion, even though at least two thirds of local authorities now offer a plastics collection scheme. Technically, almost all plastics can be recycled, but the collection infrastructure and low market demand are barriers to the recycling of some types. Blended polymers are particularly costly to recycle, so yoghurt pots, for example, are not usually collected because they are made from a mixture of polymers.

Types of plastic

Almost all plastic bottles are made from one of these plastics:

  • PET (bottled for fizzy drinks, cordial, cooking oil)
  • HDPE (bottled for milk & fruit juice, washing-up liquid, fabric conditioner)
  • PVC (bottles for still mineral water, toiletries, cordial)

Waste Online has a detailed list of the common types of plastic and the identifying symbols you will find on the packaging. Alternatively, you can download and print out a handy table to keep by your recycling bin from Recoup.