Where does recycling end up?

When you put something in the recycling bin, where does it actually go?
29 October 2019

Interview with 

Bryony Rothwell, RECAP


A cartoon of a recycling bin.


This week we’re diving into bins and sorting through the rubbish to figure out what’s going on with recycling. When you put something in the recycling bin, where does it actually end up? Bryony Rothwell, the Partnership Manager for RECAP - an organisation that coordinates waste across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough - joins Izzie Clarke and Chris Smith to explain...

Izzie - Now we've been told that most things can be recycled. I've been shopping and, Bryony, I hope you can tell me where some of these things will end up if I recycle them. First up we've got a milk bottle here, and that's made up of a hard plastic. Is that a problem?

Bryony - No, this is a very recyclable material. It's a plastic called HDPE and it’s recycled in the UK back into milk bottles. There's a very good recycling system for that material, as long as it's presented in your curbside being clean, washed out, and squashed with the lid back on. Other materials such as cardboard, if it's in good quality, not contaminated with food, that will go on to be made into more cardboard which will be made into packaging for cereal. Anything that's presented in your recycling bin in a high quality way, so it's not wet, it’s empty, it's clean and squashed, it will get made back into recyclable products.

Izzie - So why is this idea of it being clean so important?

Bryony - Any contaminant that goes into the recycling bin, so that would be liquids or food, can spoil the other quality of the materials that are in that kerbside recycling. And so when it goes through the process and the reprocesses get it, the more they have to remove the contaminant to actually get the quality of material to recycle into a new packet. Anything that's food that's adhered to that container or box either spoils the box, if it's cardboard, or it means they've got to wash it more. So it just takes longer and costs more money, and it doesn't make it viable.

Izzie - Right, I see. And finally on my shopping list is also a bag of pasta. I get through so much of it and it's come in this quite flexible wrapping. So where does that end up?

Bryony - Unfortunately, these usually are bags of composite laminates and the type of recycling that they would need to actually separate the plastics out is very complex. Unfortunately at the moment we aren't able to do that, so they often will just go into the gray bin instead of the recycling.

Chris - Just wondering, Bryony, because this sounds wonderful. I'm quite surprised to learn quite how much of the material is recycled, as you were just saying to Izzie there. But of all of the rubbish, and we must have some idea as to how much rubbish is being generated, what fraction currently is going the right way and is turning back into new milk bottles and so on?

Bryony - In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough we have a recycling rate 59 percent across all the local authorities.

Chris - Is that high?

Bryony - That's a reasonable amount, I mean, national averages are around the mid 50s.

Chris - Indeed, because looked at another way, if it's a 50 percent recycling rate, this milk bottle of Izzie’s here, that means that for every two of those that get made one doesn't end up in landfill but one does.

Bryony - Unfortunately, yes, that is the case and there is a lot of material in our residual bins still that can be recycled that isn't being. So there's about 10 percent paper in Cambridgeshire that's not being put in the recycling bin, about 10 per cent plastic. A lot of the heavy materials are coming out, so glass and metal we seem to be extracting from the bin, but there's about 30 per cent food in your gray bin as well, which could be composted but people are just putting in landfill at the moment.

Chris - Alright, so included in your figures for what we're calling recycling includes stuff that could go in the compost heap.

Bryony - Absolutely.

Chris - Because I traditionally regarded recycling as you know physicals like plastics and cardboard. That's interesting.

Bryony - No, it’s anything that's contributing to obviously reusing materials. Then, if we can reuse that food for conditioning for the soil, then making it into compost is a better use of it.

Chris - There's obviously a cost to recycling as well as a cost to manufacturing from the get go, and in order to make people use recycled things, it's got to be both economically and energetically favourable. There's no point in recycling things for the sake of just recycling and actually doing more damage to the planet. So, how is that calculation made?

Bryony - For things like your plastic bottle, 50 percent less energy is needed to make a recycled bottle compared to a virgin plastic bottle.

Chris - That’s quite high.

Bryony - That is quite high, yes. So it's really worth putting your plastics in your recycling bin in the right condition.

Chris - So are there any materials then for which the equation is less obvious, or for which it's less beneficial? What about things like glass?

Bryony - Glass, again, highly recyclable as a product, and metal likewise. The difficulties come with things like cardboard paper, where you get contamination and you have to take out that material, and it's more sorting and sifting to get the clean product through.

Chris - One of the key things about this whole recycling process, though, is you've got to have end user engagement. It's all down to, and it's very dependent on, people like me participating actively and proactively putting stuff in the right bin, isn't it? So, as a member of my family said to me today when I said we're going to come and talk to you about recycling, and she said ‘why is there no machine that could just take a bin and sort it all out? Problem solved’.

Bryony - Well, a lot of the waste that goes into the blue bin or the mixed recyclables is sorted by machine at the other end. Unfortunately, the best recycling rates in the world are usually where the human being sort it before they put it in a bin. Wales is the third highest recycler in the world and they have a kerbside sought process that means that human beings have to put it all in the right bin before.

Chris -  Very expensive, though.

Bryony - Very expensive, unfortunately, but that's one of the things that the new resources and waste strategy is looking at, whether local authorities should move to that kind of system.


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