Stop ‘wishcycling’ and get wise: how to recycle (almost) everything
From contact lenses to blister packs and used dental floss, there are items that perplex even the most dedicated recycler. Here is the expert guide to getting organised – and getting rid of your rubbish
I spend a lot of time – too much time – thinking about recycling and the main thing I think, over and over, is: it shouldn't be this hard. Eighty per cent of UK households are "still unclear" about how to recycle effectively, according to research last year – and who can blame us?
Labelling often requires a doctorate in semiotics to decode, kerbside collections are a postcode lottery and council recycling centres are often difficult to access without a car. At home, packaging piles up – no one knows what to do with toothbrushes or the cat's treat packages, and we’re squabbling over pizza boxes. All of it amounts to us collectively wondering whether recycling is ultimately pointless because it's all going to end up in landfill in the developing world.
"We’ve made something that could be fairly simple really complicated," says Libby Peake, of the environment thinktank Green Alliance. "And that's quite frustrating for the public who want to do the right thing when it comes to recycling."
Things are changing, though, if much too slowly. "We have come a long way," Steve Eminton of industry news website Let's Recycle reminds me. "Ten years ago, places wouldn't recycle milk bottles or yoghurt pots." The findings of a government consultation on "consistent collections" are due imminently and the hope is that eventually this will mean not just plastic, glass, paper and card but also cartons (Tetra Paks and similar) will be collected from all homes.
There's also the proposed deposit return scheme, under which consumers would pay a returnable deposit for plastic bottles and cans (and glass in Wales), but, in most of the UK, not until 2024 at the earliest. (Scotland is due to launch its scheme, which will also include glass, in August 2023). Eventually, technological advances will make a difference too: AI-enabled sorting, apps that allow you to scan packaging before you bin it, and a watermarking system for materials are all in the works, according to Archipelago, a fund investing in solutions for hard-to-recycle stuff.
But in the meantime, what can we do? For a start, maybe fixate less on recycling. That's an odd thing to say in an article about recycling, but it's supposed to be a last resort: limiting waste has more impact and reuse is a better strategy where possible. As Peake says: "The messages of the three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle), I think, have been lost in a lot of ways, and we focused on the thing that is the least important but probably the easiest to grasp."
Next, don't "wishcycle": putting stuff in the recycling because you wish, or hope, it could be recycled causes more problems than if you chucked it in the bin. It's also important to maintain pressure on manufacturers, retailers and government: things won't improve unless we show we want them to.
Subject to these caveats, here is a guide to what to do with some of the household items we struggle with, or don't know how to recycle. If you’re still unsure, the Recycle Now website is a godsend. Managed by waste charity Wrap, it provides a guide to what can and can't be recycled in your postcode.
The depressing mountain of foil-topped plastic blister packs from my sons’ daily contacts launched me on this quest. There are solutions: Specsavers collects contact lenses and lens packaging in every store and recycles them in the UK with a company that turns them into construction materials. Boots Opticians will also take back lenses and packaging but theirs is recycled through TerraCycle. It's fair to say the recycling world is agnostic at best when it comes to TerraCycle: BBC Panorama has reported on issues with the company's supposed UK recycling ending up in Bulgaria or left to pile up with subcontractors, or possibly ending up in landfill in the US. I have suggested alternatives where they exist.
Lions International has recently expanded its scheme collecting spectacles at its Birmingham HQ, then partnering with charities to get them to eye centres and clinics in the developing world (currently the Gambia, Nigeria, Chad, Bangladesh and Mali). You can find out how to donate by emailing [email protected] or calling free on 0345 8339502. Alternatively, Specsavers, Boots Opticians and Peep Eyewear take glasses for recycling.
Mascara, lipstick, makeup palettes, travel miniatures … Boots takes all of these in store, from any brand or source. They go to a UK-based recycler to be transformed into construction board. Boots guarantees nothing goes to landfill and nothing is incinerated.
The tops from soap, shower gel or other dispensers can't go in your normal plastic recycling. Ideally, refill and reuse pump bottles as far as possible, but the Boots cosmetic recycling scheme also takes them.
When it comes to toothbrushes, electric toothbrush heads, floss containers and those interdental brushes dentists love, there isn't much good news currently. TerraCycle will accept them if you can find a dropoff point, with the reservations explained above. Toothpaste tubes can go in Boots cosmetic recycling boxes. For the rest, "reuse them as much as you can for cleaning or something", advises Eminton. Conventional dental floss can't be recycled, but there are now silk or plant-based flosses (I use a corn starch one) and glass dispensers that can be refilled indefinitely.
Boots and Superdrug take these through the PenCycle scheme.
This is tricky. "Because it's pharmaceutical, it's very stringent on what plastics you can use, so a lot of them are PVC and, from a recyclability perspective, that's very difficult," says Adam Herriott of Wrap. Superdrug runs a blister pack recycling scheme in stores where it has an in-store pharmacy – the store locator allows you to filter to find one. Returned packs are turned into boards for the construction industry.
Some people report difficulty in having their blister packs accepted in stores: Superdrug says the scheme is still live, but it doesn't have the capacity to cope with large-scale community collections, only individual drop-offs, which may be the issue. There may be an alternative local scheme in your area: a group of GP practices is running a pilot in mine.
Finally, some good news. In the past, black plastic takeaway and ready meal containers could not be recycled. "It's not an issue at all nowadays," says Herriott. Even something that appears black is unlikely to use the problematic carbon that was the barrier to recycling in the past, and recycling equipment is perfectly able to deal with all widely used pigments these days. Despite this, some local authorities still do not accept black plastic, so check before your chuck, but most of us should be able to recycle away.
One of the big innovations of recent years has been the front-of-store collection boxes for flexible plastic in supermarkets. They take salad bags, carrier bags, crisp and biscuit packets, ready meal film lids and more: if it springs back when you crumple it, it can go in there.
At Co-op, recycling takes place in the UK, where material is sorted by polymer type and made into bin bags, rigid storage items and our old favourite, construction boards. One key point to make about this stuff: please do rinse, as food soiling is likely to make it impossible to recycle.
Eminton puts this one to bed for me: "They can be recycled unless they’re really dirty – it's just common sense." Grease stains are fine.
All of these can go into the flexible plastic collection points in supermarkets, though it's worth highlighting that they are among the most difficult plastics to recycle, because of their multiple layers. So they become – you guessed it – construction boards. Pets at Home will also recycle pet food pouches of any brand in its 320 stores – it asks that you rinse them out first.
It's worth checking on the RecycleNow website or directly if your council collects foil kerbside – I discovered mine does. Otherwise, your local recycling centre will probably take it. Scrunch before you recycle, ideally creating something tennis-ball-sized or larger.
There are so many more ecological ways to drink coffee, but if for some reason you’re tied to pods like Nespresso, recycling options have improved recently. Podback offers a kerbside service in nine local authority areas (check on the website). Other customers can pick up free recycling bags from Morrisons, Ocado or one of the participating pod brands and send it back using Yodel's Collect+ service.
Keep metal jar lids in a tin and either put into your tin can recycling kerbside, or in the metal recycling at your local waste facility.
The tide is turning on these plant-based plastics, which were initially heralded as a revolution. You may have spotted the results of University College London's Big Compost Experiment published late last year highlighting how poorly compostable they actually are. Wrap's advice? Don't try to home compost these, and check what your local authority says. If there isn't a food waste collection, says Herriott, it's unlikely your council will collect compostable plastics and they should just go in the bin.
Although cartons are recyclable, the multiple layers mean it's a fairly complex process and they can't be recycled into more cartons (known as "closed loop" recycling). So if a plastic bottle is available for the same product, such as milk, choose that instead. Where you can take them is up to your local council. Check the Recycle Now website to see whether they’re picked up kerbside, or if you have to drop them off somewhere.
Even with a non-stick coating, metal or mostly metal pans should be fine to go in your nearest council metal recycling point. "Teflon coating shouldn't make any difference," says Eminton.
A paper padded envelope can be recycled with your card and paper, according to Eminton. Plastic will need to go in the bin.
If you’re lucky enough to live within the north London waste authority, you can take your polystyrene packaging to your local tip. For the rest of us, there isn't a good solution, unless whoever delivered it will take it away again. "Better to put it in your black sack than put it in your recycling bin, because that causes a problem," says Eminton. There's a lot less of it around nowadays, thankfully, and it's also widely recycled by commercial users.
Although there are plenty of well-known ways to give your old clothes away – charity shops, collections for asylum seekers or the H&M scheme that takes back unwanted clothes – there's no great news here: textiles are still poorly recyclable. "A jacket has a fleece lining, an inner material, an outer material, buttons, zips and threads – we can't separate all of that," says Lucy Mortimer of Archipelago.
"Even if you can deconstruct the individual components, you then have a problem with the individual materials," adds her colleague Justin Guest – and technology to separate fibres is still in its infancy.
So what can you do? You already know: buy less and buy secondhand. But also, be sceptical around claims about recycled material in new clothes: plastic bottles are better turned into more plastic bottles than clothes that then can't be recycled.
Loose-leaf tea is the best option for the planet (all that packaging significantly ups the carbon footprint), but if it has to be bags, choose one with a plant-based seal. Unlike oil-based plastic seals, these are made from renewable resources and can be composted industrially.
Many bags are now sealed with plant-based plastic, including PG Tips, Yorkshire Tea, Clipper, Co-op, Asda and Sainsbury's own brands – Tesco is moving across by summer of this year.
If your local authority collects food or garden waste, put them in there; if not, you can put them in home compost, though you may end up having to retrieve small amounts of plant-based plastic residue. The super-virtuous empty the leaves into compost and bin the bag (also the best approach if you’re not sure what your teabag is made of).
The total number of cables hoarded in UK homes that could be recycled (140m) could circle the Earth more than five times, according to Material Focus. Its website, Recycle Your Electricals, tells you what to do with cables and everything else. "Anything with a plug, cable or battery can be recycled," says Scott Butler, the organisation's executive director. His advice? Bag them up and when you’ve got enough use its online postcode locator, which already has 5,000 recycling points and is adding more constantly.
You can't recycle DVDs at home, but places such as Zapper will take them, and might even give you a bit of money for the good ones.
Every week, 1.3m single-use vapes are thrown away, according to recent research and they are the UK's fastest-growing waste stream. They don't need to be: follow the Recycle Your Electricals advice and find a recycling point. Take the battery out if there is one and recycle it separately; don't put the whole vape in with the battery recycling. Also consider switching to refillable vapes – many e-liquid bottles are made from recyclable plastic (but check if unsure).
There's no recycling route for garden slides and other large plastic kids’ items, but given they are also almost indestructible, share the love by giving them away.
Short of creating some kind of retro hipster sculpture with them, your videotapes need to be binned.
Don't put these in your glass collection: the different melting points cause havoc with glass recycling.
There's no large-scale or widely available solution for the stinky stuff but nappy recycling pioneers Nappicycle in Wales have resurfaced the A487 between Cardigan and Aberystwyth with them. Partnering with Nappicylcle, babycare company Pura has also just completed a six-month trial in Bristol, so watch – don't sniff – this space.
This article was amended on 8 February 2023 because an earlier version omitted the fact that Scotland will launch its deposit return scheme in August 2023. It was further amended on 15 February 2023 to qualify that black plastic recycling is not available everywhere in the UK.