United Kingdom

What can you recycle? Your guide to symbols and recycling

We all know how important recycling is for the planet - it helps minimise waste and transforms old products into new packaging.

Recycling just four shampoo bottles saves enough energy to power a shower for five minutes, highlighting just how important reusing products is for the environment. 

As consumers one of the big differences that we can make is encouraging companies to produce more recyclable packaging by targeting our money towards goods that come in it.

The problem is that whilst most of us want to recycle as much as possible, it can be confusing to know what items are recyclable and what aren't. However, with the help of This is Money's guide, you can identify the symbols that show whether products can be recycled and better target your spending towards the push for recycling.

It can be difficult to know whether all items of packaging are recyclable at home or not

Despite a clear shift in the desire to be greener in recent years, most of us Britons are still not recycling enough as currently. The UK uses a massive 35.8million plastic bottles every single day but only 19.8million of these are recycled – just over half.

But big business doesn't help us out much. From supermarkets using unnecessary packaging, to giant consumer brands selling us crisps in bags that cannot easily be recycled, even if you do want to recycle it can be tough to do so.

It is not yet compulsory to have recycling labels on all packaging, although many do, which helps households identify which parts can or cannot be recycled and if they can, whether you can recycle them at home or if you have to take them to a recycling centre instead.

To help you understand what can and can't be recycled, This is Money has put together a guide of what each symbol means - and how you can recycle more.  

Recycling symbols

Most of us will be used to seeing these symbols on our packaging but some will not know exactly what each one means.

Some may assume that the symbols signal that packaging can easily be recycled but often it will actually be giving specific instructions as to how or where it can be recycled, if at all. 

It can be difficult for households to know what each symbol means on their packaging

Widely Recycled: This label is applied to packaging that is collected by 75 per cent or more of local authorities across the UK, for example plastic bottles, meaning it is very likely to be able to be recycled.

Widely Recycled – Rinse: Again, products will likely to be recyclable but they will have to be rinsed first to get rid of any food residue. Clean packaging also helps keep vermin away.

The Green Dot: This symbol does not necessarily mean that the packaging is recyclable, will be recycled or has been recycled. It is a symbol used on packaging in some European countries and signifies that the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.

Mobius Loop: This indicates that an object is capable of being recycled, not that the object has been recycled or will be accepted in all recycling collection systems. Sometimes this symbol is used with a percentage figure in the middle to explain that the packaging contains ‘x’ percentage of recycled material.

Plastic resin codes: This identifies the type of plastic resin used to make the item by providing a 'Resin Identification Code'. It is represented with a 'chasing arrows' symbol surrounding a number between 1 and 7 that defines the resin used.

Glass: This symbol asks that you recycle the glass container. Remember to dispose of glass bottles and jars in a bottle bank or in your household recycling and separate the colours. 

Waste electricals: Packaging with this symbol means you should not place the electrical item in the general waste. They can instead be recycled through a number of channels. 

Food waste recycling

It is not just plastics and cardboards that you can recycle but also food waste products.

Most food waste actually ends up in landfill sites where it rots and releases methane, a damaging green house gas.  

Recycle Now says that by recycling just one banana peel, this could generate enough energy to fully charge a smartphone twice. 

It added the peelings from six potatoes could be turned into enough compost to grow a brand new potato.

For the councils that provide this service, households can recycle things like coffee grounds, eggshells, fish and meat bones, mouldy and gone off food as well as fruit and vegetable peelings.

However, some residents who leave out food waste have said there is an issue with animals getting into the bins before they are collected and leaving rubbish out on the street.

Those who have food waste recycling bins are advised to line them with a newspaper to help stop bad smells and leaking. You can also buy special compostable bags to put food waste into before it goes in the bin - this can make a huge difference in containing mess.

Households have been asked to rinse their packaging before they put it in their recycling bin

What items can’t be recycled

Although we all want to recycle as much as possible, there are some things that aren’t possible to put in your bin at home.

This includes plastic bottles containing chemicals, for example, anti-freeze as strong chemicals can harm staff in recycling plants, as well as damage equipment.

Crisp packets, sweet wrappers, film lids from pots and trays, plastic toys and laminated pouches, such as for cat food and coffee, are also not currently recyclable from home.

Bathroom items such as cotton wool, mirrors, toothpaste tube and tissues are not recyclable from the home whilst drinking glasses, wet wipes and plastic toys should also be put in a normal bin. 

If you are not sure if something is recyclable, check if it has a symbol on it. 

Take advantage of a recycling service for tricky items

Terracycle is a company that aims to recycle commonly unrecyclable items. It says it can collect and recycle coffee capsules from households, pens from a school or plastic gloves from a manufacturing facility.

It has also set up public access drop-off locations across the country. To find your nearest drop off point, head to the TerraCycle website and access the interactive map.

Terracycle runs a free recycling programme partnering with different firms, including Bayliss and Harding and Hovis, where users are able to drop off various items relating to the firm they can't normally recycle. 

Recycling tips 

1) Households are asked to rinse packaging before they put it in their recycling bin as leftover food residue can ruin it and make it difficult to recycle. 

2) It is possible to leave the labels on packaging but remove any plastic film and chuck in your rubbish bin.

3) Separate cardboard and paper from plastic packaging and put in the recycling separately.  

This could include bread bags, beauty containers, old toothpaste tubes and crisp packets, for example.  

For those not near a drop off point, they can opt to pay for a Zero Waste Box which allows consumers to recycle waste that Terracycle do not have a brand sponsor for. The boxes don't come cheap, however, starting at £113.  

Once the bin is full, the customer can send the box to Terracycle who will do the recycling. To recycle this waste, TerraCycle partners with a number of third-party processors who turn the waste into a reusable raw material. 

The waste it sends for recycling is shredded, washed and turned into an agglomerate or pellets. These pellets can then be melted down and moulded by manufacturers into new products such as outdoor furniture, planters and playgrounds for schools. 

Apps to help you recycle

Some county councils have set up apps for the locals which helps them determine what they can recycle. Users simply put in what they are looking to recycle and the app will tell you if it is possible to.

The app will also tell users the next time their recycling bins will be collected and information about your nearest recycling centre.

Contact your local council to find out if you have access to one of the apps. 

Eco-Cycle is another app where users can search if an item is recyclable or how to dispose of it. Similarly, the Helpful app lets users find places nearby to recycle items. 

How does recycling work?

After your recycling bins are taken away, they go to a recycling facility where the items go on a conveyor belt. 

Everything is sorted through with items that shouldn't be in there getting removed. 

Steel and aluminium cans are removed separately by different magnets whilst cardboard and paper is separated with the different types of paper then separated again by hand. 

Meanwhile, different types of plastic are identified and separated using optical scanners. Glass is the remaining material and this drops off the end of the conveyor into a large container.  

Once all the items have been separated, they are taken for reprocessing at specialist factories. 

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