How to recycle like a pro
Most of us know how to make sure common items such as paper, food and drinks cans and glass are recycled. But it can be difficult to work out how to recycle other items. They may not be able to be put in your kerbside recycling bins, and whether everything in those bins makes it to the recycling plant.
In this article, we cover how to give your everyday items the best possible chance of being turned into new items, and how to recycle as much as you possibly can. You’ll notice lot of the advice is specific to the UK. But don’t stop if you’re reading elsewhere, because there’s still loads of useful information!
If you need advice on a particular item or process, we’ve popped a table of contents on the right-hand side of this page (or right at the bottom if you’re reading this on your phone). This means you can skip easily to the information you need.
12 minutes to read
How to recycle using your kerbside containers
This is a commonly-asked question but it’s not one with a simple answer. Kerbside recycling across the UK varies by local authority. So if you want to know how to recycle in the best way for your area, check your local authority website. Then, make a note of everything that can go in your recycling bins to be collected.
Don’t be tempted to add anything other than what is on your LA’s list. If you add something to your kerbside recycling and your local authority doesn’t have the facility to process it, it’s likely to end up either in landfill or at an energy-from-waste plant. The best advice to follow with recycling to is “if in doubt, keep it out”. This helps make sure everything that does go in your recycling bin gets recycled.
How to recycle everyday items
Most of us know how to recycle common items. However, there are some simple steps you can take to ensure your recycling makes it through the recycling plant.
A bit of juice in your baked bean tin probably won’t stop it from being recycled. That said, it’s still good practice to rinse everything before putting it in the bin.
Some household recycling is still sorted by hand. So removing food debris can make it much nicer for workers who have to sort through our waste.
What’s more, food smells can attract pests. Rinsing containers before putting them in the bin helps keep your garden and home free of flies, mice and rats.
Making sure your rinsed-out containers are dry before adding them to the recycling pile is another great habit to get into.
If your shampoo bottle or beer can is a little wet inside, it will still be recycled. However, a lot of the time, recycling is mixed in your bin. This means the water from inside the bottle could make paper or cardboard too wet to recycle. So make sure everything is dry before it goes in!
It’s OK to recycle cans with paper labels but some “additions” to our everyday items can make them hard to process.
For instance, if you have a plastic drink bottle with a plastic wrap or label, this can cause recycling sorting machines to reject it. So remove all wrappers and recycle them separately when you can.
The same goes for sticky tape and labels on cardboard boxes. If you remove as many of these as possible, it makes them much easier to process. Also, make sure you remove any plastic bags, shredded paper, polystyrene, packing peanuts or bubble wrap from inside cardboard boxes before recycling. Remember – naked is best!
Break it down
Cardboard, in particular, is much easier to process if it has been folded flat before putting into the bin. Boxes within boxes can often cause headaches for recycling plants and large, unflattened boxes may jam the machines.
It also means that recycling trucks can fit a lot more in on their rounds. So you may even find that if you haven’t flattened your cardboard, it may not be collected.
How to recycle less common items
The first place to look to find out how to recycle any of the items below is your local authority’s website. If you can’t find the information you’re looking for there, the guide below gives some alternative options for how to recycle less common items.
Black plastic is another tough one! It’s recyclable, but it’s traditionally not been detectable by the lasers in the recycling sorting process so a lot doesn’t get recycled.
However, this is improving, because there is a new black plastic on the market than can be detected. Your local authority will be able to tell you how to recycle black plastic and if there’s anywhere you can take it.
Marks and Spencer have recycling drop-off points at many of their stores, and some of them include black plastic.
Cardboard drinks cartons
This varies a lot by area. Some local authorities collect cardboard drinks cartons (Tetra Paks and similar) with your regular household recycling. Others have no local option and some even advise putting them in with your household waste.
Cooking oil should never be poured down your sink or toilet as it can contribute to fatbergs and other contamination.
You should also avoid pouring it into your food waste collection caddy or compost in large amounts.
So how do you recycle or safely dispose of cooking oil? The best bet is to find a local drop-off point (usually your local household recycling centre) where it will be collected. It will then be processed in a variety of ways, including to make biofuels.
Coffee cups and cardboard sleeves – how to recycle different elements
How the cups and sleeves from coffee cups can be recycled depends on where they’re from and what they’re made of. Most major coffee chains provide information on recycling on their websites. You can see the recycling policy for the three biggest coffee chains in the UK here:
One thing worth noting is that coffee cups cannot be recycled with cardboard in your kerbside collection. Although the sleeves might be able to. So, as you can see, it’s a bit of a minefield!
Terracycle’s crisp packet recycling scheme is by far the best place to start when working out how to recycle your empty crisp packets. With over 1,500 drop-off locations across the UK, there’s bound to be one near you.
Deodorant and hairspray bottles – how to recycle household aerosols
Although they look like they might be difficult to recycle, empty deodorant and hairspray aerosol cans are very simple to process. Most can go wherever you usually recycle your food and drinks cans. And there’s no need to remove the plastic spray lids as these are dealt with when they’re processed for recycling. This is with the exception of black spray lids, which should be removed before putting into your bin.
You can recycle anything from toasters and kettles to alarm clocks, smoke alarms, laptops and mobile phones. Some retailers and manufacturers offer a recycling or refurbishment service. So checking with the manufacturer of your product is a great place to start. Alternatively, click here to search Ecosia* for local electrical recycling options.
*Ecosia is a search engine that plants trees for every search that’s carried out. So you can find answers and help the planet.
If your small appliance or electrical item is still working and you’re just upgrading or replacing it, recycling shouldn’t be the first option. Try donating to a charity shop, looking for a local charity that may need it, or selling it via an online auction or social media marketplace. Reusing is always better than recycling!
Most standard, non-window envelopes can be recycled with your paper recycling. But be aware – padded envelopes, those that are brightly dyed or and window envelopes may need to be processed differently. This is a great guide for working out how to recycle your envelopes, no matter what they’re made of.
Kerbside food waste collection is becoming more widely available. However, collecting food waste from millions of households still isn’t the most sustainable or energy-efficient solution.
Alternatively, you could try talking to people at local allotments who might have a communal bin you could add to. Or share a compost bin with a neighbour. Better still, reduce your food waste by trying some of the tips in our food waste reduction blog post.
Furniture and carpets
Alternatively – a lot of people need low-cost furniture so you could try selling or donating anything you no longer need. Also, some larger charity shops specialise in selling home items, so finding one of those is also a good option. A lot of them will collect, too.
Kitchen and household cleaning bottles
Some people believe that bleach bottles can’t be recycled but this is not the case – so recycle as usual with your other plastic bottles.
Kitchen foil and foil wrappers
You can easily recycle kitchen foil and foil trays that have been used – as long as they’re clean. A good tip with smaller pieces of foil and the foil wrappers from sweets or yoghurt pot lids is to scrunch them all up into a bigger foil ball. Smaller pieces can be missed in the recycling process and can even get lost in the machinery and break it. So the bigger the ball, the better. A great excuse for eating that entire box of truffles in one sitting.
It’s always best to check with your local authority though, as some prefer foil to be flattened rather than scrunched. It can feel like there is never a simple answer with recycling so it’s good to be aware of regional rules and processes.
Not sure whether something is foil or plastic? Do the scrunch test! If you scrunch foil into a ball, it will stay balled up. If it’s plastic (like crisp packets), then it will start to unfurl.
Often, the best way to dispose of an old appliance is to ask the supplier of its replacement to collect it. Manufacturers and retailers have a good system in place for collection, recycling, refurbishment and proper disposal of large appliances.
If you aren’t replacing your appliance, you may still be able to get it collected – check here for local options in the UK.
Pens and stationery
Broken or used-up old pens can be a tricky one, but a lot of branches of Ryman have drop-off points for pens. They also recycle ink and toner cartridges, batteries and Soda Stream cylinders!
Plastic bags and other stretchy plastic
Bread bags, toilet roll wrapping, frozen food bags and dry cleaning bags are all examples of stretchy plastic.
If you can’t recycle your stretchy plastic at home, many supermarkets have set up plastic bag drop-off points, so check whether your local large store has one. If you’re in doubt as to whether your plastic can be recycled, this page from Recycle Now is a great place to check. Remember that even though it is plastic, cling film cannot be recycled. So choosing a more sustainable option for wrapping leftovers or sandwiches is the best idea to avoid cling film going in the bin.
Most clothes and other textiles that are in good condition are better donated to charity than recycled. Clothes take a lot of resources and energy to create, so the longer we can use or reuse them, the better.
Did you know that socks are the least donated items but one of the most in-demand items by homeless charities? So before binning your socks, think about donating them, as they may be exactly what somebody in need is looking for.
There are some facilities for recycling textiles, so again, try your local authority or searching for a clothes recycling drop-off point near you.
Toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes
However, it’s not as difficult as it used to be – Terracycle run a scheme for collecting and recycling empty toothpaste tubes, and some manufacturers are being more innovative in this area too, so hopefully, it will become easier in future. Terracycle also run a toothbrush recycling scheme so you don’t have to put your old plastic toothbrush into general waste.
Did you know that supposedly eco-friendly bamboo toothbrushes aren’t necessarily the most planet-friendly option? A study by Trinity College Dublin has concluded that bamboo toothbrushes may not be the answer if you’re looking to be as sustainable as possible. This article explains why.
Tyres, engine oil and car batteries
Cars need regular maintenance and this often means waste products are created. But a lot of these can be recycled, including tyres, oil and batteries.
When your car needs replacement tyres, the easiest solution is to let the garage that is replacing them dispose of them. There are regulations for how businesses deal with all of their waste products. so as long as the garage you use is reputable, you can trust them to get your tyres to the right place.
Alternatively, if you need to do it yourself, check with your local authority as with other items.
Tyres that are sent for recycling are usually depolluted and thoroughly cleaned, then shredded and made into Astroturf, surfaces for children’s playgrounds and other uses. Some tyres are made into fuel but this is the least common option at present.
Again, your local garage should have a system in place to dispose of used engine oil. If you change your engine oil at home, make sure you take the drained oil in a sealed container to your local recycling centre. From there it is collected and recycled. This article explains exactly what happens to your used engine oil once it’s been collected.
It is illegal to dispose of car batteries with your household waste, so make sure you search for a suitable dropoff point to stay within the law. If you can’t take your battery to your local recycling centre, try garages and scrap metal facilities near you.
Wrapping paper – how to recycle less “simple” paper items
This is a tough one because it depends on what the paper is made of and how high-quality it is.
Generally speaking, if your wrapping paper doesn’t contain very bright dyes, glitter, or any laminated, shiny or plastic-looking embellishments, it can be recycled with your paper recycling. It’s worth checking with your local authority, though, as many have stopped accepting wrapping paper altogether because of how often it’s rejected by recycling mills.
To avoid lots of waste, try using plain brown wrapping paper for any gifts you give. This is more fashionable each year and has the bonus of being one of the most eco-friendly options. Another option is to reuse a gift bag or a fabric bag and simply ask the recipient to return it to you or reuse it themselves.
Things that can’t be recycled or are difficult to recycle
Even though there is a recycling option for so many items these days, there are still some things that can’t be recycled, or that are very hard to recycle. These include:
- Polystyrene. The technology does now exist to recycle polystyrene. However, because polystyrene is not widely used nowadays, there’s very little demand for it so in most places it isn’t recycled.
- Cling film. There are very few places where cling film can be recycled. Even when it can, it’s often more expensive and energy-inefficient than making brand new plastic wrap.
- Glittery/brightly-dyed paper. As we mentioned above, wrapping paper with glitter, bright dyes or a laminated effect is very difficult to recycle so should be avoided if possible.
- Broken coffee cups and other crockery.
- Napkins, soiled paper towels and tissues. These can contaminate other recyclables and are often too dirty or wet to be recycled themselves. So they should go in your general waste bin.
- Shredded paper. Even though this seems like a sustainable option for packaging, its shredded nature makes it very difficult to process for recycling plants.
- Wire clothes hangers. These can’t be recycled but your local dry cleaner will probably take them off your hands if they’re in good shape.
- Hand soap pump lids. Unlike spray nozzles, the pump lids should be removed from bottles before recycling. Recently, supermarkets and other suppliers have struggled to get hold of these lids, so it’s good to keep a stash under your sink in case you need to reuse them in future.
- Pizza boxes. Recycling machinery does not like grease, and pizza boxes are definitely greasy, which can sometimes make them hard or impossible to recycle. But don’t just throw away the whole box! Cut off the greasy part and recycle the rest.
- Nail polish bottles. Even though many nail polish bottles are made from glass, the polish itself is classed as a hazardous material. This makes them unsuitable for recycling.
- Straws. Plastic straws generally fall through the cracks in recycling machinery so don’t get recycled.
- Cutlery, kitchen knives, crockery and pots & pans. All of these are very difficult to recycle so reusing (perhaps as plant pots) or donating to a friend or a charity shop is usually the best answer.
How to recycle like a pro – tips & resources
These links and tips will help give the best chance of your items being recycled.
- Make sure your items are clean, dry, flat and naked. Remove tape from recyclable cardboard, wrapping paper and other packaging.
- Always check with local authority to see what can be recycled at the kerbside and household recycling centre as in the U.K. it differs between councils.
- Home composting is always best for the environment, even if your council collects food waste.
- TerraCycle is an excellent resource for community recycling points for those less common items.
- Learn what the recycling signs mean so you know what to do with each item.
- Unsure if it’s recyclable? Check out Recycle Now for information on most items you can think of!
- RecycleBox is a home recycling and collection service where you pay a small fee for a box and collection. Ideal for less common items or items your local authority does not collect.
And finally – consuming less is always a better option whenever you can. There is no substitute for a refill shop or a truly zero-waste option.
When this isn’t possible, try to make informed choices when you’re shopping. This can include choosing more easily-recyclable or compostable packaging, buying items in plain cardboard boxes rather than pretty printed ones and finding items that aren’t shrink-wrapped.
Now you know how to recycle pretty much anything, how about some more reading?
Want to know more about reducing your impact on the environment by making sustainable choices? These blog posts might be for you:
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