What Can You Really Recycle – and What Happens To It?

We learn from a young age that recycling is important for helping the environment and how to recycle. In the UK, recycling waste from households has increased over the years, reaching almost 50% in 2019. We diligently put our metal, glass, paper, and plastic recyclables in the recycling bins, doing our bit for the planet.

But the reality is that not everything we put in the recycling gets recycled. In fact, less than 1/3 of plastic in the UK is recycled, a large proportion of it ends up in landfills with the rest of our household waste. We should all be trying to live in a more eco friendly home, so in this article we take a closer look at how to recycle and what happens to our recycling.

What can be recycled?

It can be really difficult sometimes to find a quick answer to whether an item is recyclable or not, and sometimes we just don’t have the time to check! The recycling rate in the UK is 45% – so it would benefit a lot of people to know what they can recycle and what they can’t. London Recycles UK has a super helpful search tool on their website that enables you to search an item to see if you can recycle it or not… Now that’s seriously handy!

The key materials in your recycling bin that can be reused over and over again are glass bottles and jars, metal cans, and most types of paper and cardboard. 

The problem with plastic

Plastics take about 500 years to completely decompose. Plastics that we throw away break down into microplastics that can be harmful to the environment, humans, and even animal health. Microplastics have been found in some marine species and drinking water, posing a health risk. If that wasn’t bad enough, only 9% of plastic ever made has been recycled!

Plastics are made of polymers, some of which can be melted down and repurposed, while others can’t. This means that only specific types of plastic can be recycled, and the ones accepted by your local authority and recovery facility will vary depending on where you live. For example, 4 out of 5 local authorities in England don’t collect plastic film, meaning people living in these areas have no choice but to throw it in the bin.

What happens to the waste in the recycling bin?

The exact process of waste recycling depends on the system in your local area, as well as the material being recycled. 

The first step is collection and sorting. In some regions, a separate recycling bin or box is provided for each type of material, and separating recycled materials at home can help the local authority recycling programs to be much more effective. Others operate a single-stream approach, where the recyclable waste is collected together in single containers and then separated later. The sorting stage is also important for separating items that are not made of recyclable materials from the ones that are (more on that later). 

The materials are then processed by pulping (for paper) or melting (for glass and plastic) to form pellets that can then go on to be used to make new products from recycled material. 

Can capacity keep up with demand?

The UK has a problem when it comes to recycling, particularly plastics and mixed paper. Our national capacity for recycling only covers half the recycling waste we produce. The solution to this has been outsourcing: shipping nearly a million tonnes of plastic packaging and recycling each year to countries such as Turkey, South-East Asian countries, and – until their recent ban – China.

The geographic distancing certainly helps keep the rubbish problem out of sight, but these global solutions don’t always come with a guarantee of what’s happening. There’s every chance we could be transporting this material halfway around the world, just for it to be burned or dumped. Clearly, building the UK recycling industry is an important step in maintaining control over what happens to our waste, and ensuring our recycling efforts really are as green as we hope.

girl showing how to recycle by placing plastic bottle in recycling bin

What cannot be recycled?

One of the reasons not all our recycling waste gets recycled is that some materials cannot be recycled, even though we think they can. It’s important to be aware of these items so that we can reduce the amount we are using.

Items filled with food or drinks. 

While glass jars, bottles, and carton boxes can all be recycled, a problem arises when there is contamination from food waste. Although there is a washing stage in the recycling process, if it’s too hard to clean the food or drinks from the material, you can expect it to end up in the landfill. The same is true of metal-lined packages like crisp packets and baby food pouches.

Post-it notes. 

These innocent pieces of paper often end up in our recycling bins but get sifted out at a later stage and head to the dump. This is because of the glue that keeps them stuck on your wall or desk, which isn’t suitable for most recycling programs. Cutting off the glue patch and throwing it away will help the rest of your note find a second lease of life.

Toothpaste tubes. 

What makes these squeezable items non-recyclable is the materials combined to make them. Most toothpaste tubes consist of aluminium and different types of plastic. When it comes to materials recovery for recycling, these compound materials are too difficult to extract, and they end up going to landfill. 

Pyrex dishes. 

Most glass bottles and jars can be recycled, but the exception to this is pyrex. Pyrex is known for being almost shatterproof, because of the intense heat used in its manufacture. Unfortunately, this same quality makes it difficult to melt and repurpose. 


Receipts printed on shiny, thermal paper contain a substance also known as bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS). This makes them unsuitable for recycling. Next time your cashier asks whether you want your receipt, think twice before you answer. Not only will you be saving some space in your wallet, you’ll be doing the planet a favour if you say no!

Bags used for salad or other vegetables. 

These types of plastic are made up of different plastic types. These types of plastics keep the vegetables fresh for consumption. But most recovery facilities are challenged to separate or process these types of plastic. 

Black Plastic (in some cases)

Unfortunately, the laser technology which is used for sorting recycling is sometimes not able to detect black plastic (depending on which type of laser is being used), as such it doesn’t get sorted for recycling but instead ends up in landfill or incinerated!

However a new type of black plastic has been developed which can be detected by lasers and is now being used, meaning that most black plastic packaging can be recycled – but this is all dependant on your local recycling centre.

The best thing to do is to check with your local authority to be sure what they are asking local residents to do with black plastic.

How To Get The Most Out Of Your Recycling

To make sure all your recyclable waste gets a second lease of life, follow these easy tips:

Wash it out!

Not only does food waste make it harder for individual items to be recycled, it can also impact the other materials collected in the same truck, particularly for single stream systems where plastic, cans and paper are all mixed together. Paper contaminated with leftover food and drink isn’t suitable for recycling, so the whole lot might need to be thrown out. So empty out the leftovers and give the tin or pot a rinse before you put it in the recycling bin.

Squish it!

Plastic bottles should be flattened before you put them in for recycling. There’s two reasons for this. Firstly, they don’t take up so much space, so the collection truck can pick up more recycling on each trip and save petrol. The second is that unsquished bottles have a habit of rolling off the conveyor belt at the recycling plant, which makes the process less efficient.

Put a lid on it!

Many sorting machines reject items smaller than 4cm. This means that bottle lids, straws and other small items can end up going to landfill instead of recycling. To counter this, screw the lids back on to bottles, and push straws inside cartons before throwing them in the recycling box. 

Stores which accept difficult to recycle items

In 2021 Tesco announced that all of its large UK stores will feature recycling collection points for soft and flexible plastics, which are typically not suitable for recycling at home as they are not collected by most local councils. Previously Tesco has used these items to create food-grade packaging for their items, however more recently the majority of items collected by stores have been sent to be recycled, with some being sent to energy-from-waste generation facilities. This scheme focuses on allowing items such as bread bags, crisp packets, salad bags and sweet wrappers to be recycled. Tesco has estimated that it will collect and recycle around 1,000 tonnes of plastic annually under the scheme. This is a fantastic initiative considering that currently as little as 6% of such plastics are being recycled in the UK.

Another new initiative announced this year by Dixons Carphone, which owns brands such as Curry’s and PC world is a polystyrene takeback scheme. The retailer has vowed to make all of its own brand packaging reusable or recyclable by 2023. In the meantime their newly launched initiative will focus on allowing customers to recycle TV packaging, this can be done by either dropping it of in-store or having the polysterene taken away at delivery.

We love that businesses are making it easier to recycle plastics that we can’t put in our recycle bins. Comment down below if you know any other stores that we can add to the list!

Apps that help with recycling

Technology is also helping optimise our collective recycling efforts. Bin2Day is a smartphone app that helps its users with how to recycle and manage their waste and recycling collections throughout the UK. With the help of the app, your local authority can inform you about:

  • Changes on collection days
  • Reminders of paid-for collections for bulky items, garden waste, etc.
  • Introducing new services like food waste collection
  • Delays in the bin collection service
  • Whether they are meeting their recycling targets

Opting for less plastic is best

Consumers play a major role in reducing waste that enters landfill; and part of that is understanding which items can and cannot be recycled. Choosing products with consideration for the types of packaging being used, will in time push manufacturers to seek alternative forms. Where possible select glass or metal products, this can be a simple, but effective way to cut back on plastic. Consider choosing items with less packaging; some products are over packaged – it’s a small step, but when everyone does it, it can make a huge difference in reducing waste. This could also help reduce your general food waste, if you’re just buying the quantities that you need. There are also increasing numbers of bulk buying outlets and refill stations available, where you can bring your own containers to fill up on general household products. 

In cases where you do need plastic, the eco-friendly approach is to avoid buying new. Second hand or rented baby products can be a perfect alternative for parents who are looking for ways to practice sustainable living. Y’earn can help you find good quality, used baby items to rent for as long as your little one needs them. This can help your budget as well as help the environment.

Why not try composting too?

Now that we’ve covered all things recycling bin, have you ever considered creating a worm compost bin? This could be a great project to undertake with your kids, and you can teach them all about the environmental benefits in the process! After all, knowledge is power, right?

Composting has an array of benefits for the earth and your household. Finished compost can be used as an organic fertiliser for your garden (it increases nutrients in the soil alongside a whole load of other benefits!), so by starting a worm compost bin, you can put your food scraps to use instead of throwing them away! You’ll also be reducing your household rubbish by about 1/3 (and preventing food waste which is a huge contributor to climate change)!

Adding worms to your compost bin helps to break down the food faster (did you know worms can eat half their weight in vegetation each day?). Additionally, adding worms means the compost will have less odour and will result in a quality compost.

To read all the steps on how you can create a worm compost bin at home, click here.

conceptual image of green plant shaped like recycling image

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If this is your first visit, hello, let us introduce ourselves. We’re Y’earn and we exist to create more love, less landfill. Pretty lofty, right? Well, not really, it’s actually pretty simple. Our aim is to make renting as common as owning so we live more sustainably while helping the community around us.

Y’earn is a parent-to-parent marketplace to rent Baby & Kids items from people in your community or make some cash if you have items you don’t need right now. We’re a sustainable business that plants 🌲, adopts 🐝 and donates to children’s charities.  We’re helping each other and the planet, one rental at a time.

You can read more about how Y’earn works here.

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Y'earn Baby & Kids

Y’earn is a parent-to-parent marketplace to rent Baby & Kids items from people and small businesses in your community or make some cash if you have items you don't need right now. We plant 🌲 and adopt 🐝, plus give to children’s charities.

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