The Biggest Recycling Mistakes You've Been Making

Artwork: Meg O'Donnell
If you resolved to start recycling more this year, there’s a chance you’ve been doing it wrong. According to a recent survey by Anglian Home Improvements, although the majority of people are doing their bit, many don’t know what exactly can and can’t be recycled.
The study found that 99% of British people “actively recycle” in order to help the planet, but 70% of us are currently unaware of what we can and can’t recycle. Over 67% of the nation know the basics, like that aluminium cans, glass bottles and cardboard can all be recycled, but 27% of us incorrectly think that we can recycle dirty pizza boxes, chocolate wrappers and crisp bags, which unfortunately isn’t the case. Keep that in mind next time you have a girls' night in.
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Between 2012 and 2016 there was an 84% increase in rejected recycling due to UK households putting the wrong materials into their recycling bin. In 2016, WRAP, a registered charity that works to reduce waste, found that almost half of all UK households throw away one or more items that could actually be recycled, and considering we each throw away on average 407 kg of waste every year, it’s time we learn how to properly recycle to ensure we do our bit for the environment.
With so many different types of product packaging, materials and symbols, it’s no wonder so many of us give up before we’ve even reached the recycling bin, but recycling doesn’t need to be confusing. If you don’t want to be rubbish at recycling (see what we did there), read on...
You’re recycling paper… but the wrong kind
Most paper and cardboard can be recycled, but there are a few common mistakes people make.
Organic or food waste is one of the main reasons paper and cardboard gets contaminated, causing the entire lot to be rejected and sent to landfill instead of being recycled. That means no greasy pizza boxes or takeaway containers!
Dirty kitchen roll and wrapping paper can't be recycled, either – but a worrying proportion of us incorrectly believe they can be, according to research from the British Science Association (BSA).
A lot of paper and cardboard items, like takeaway coffee cups, are often lined with a thin layer of plastic, meaning they can’t be recycled alongside other cardboard products. To counteract, “Keep an eye out for dedicated coffee cup recycling bins or, better still, get yourself a reusable cup,” says Julian Kirby, waste campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
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You’re not recycling food waste
Composting isn't just for gardeners. Even if you don't have any outdoor space, composting can help the environment and save money.
“Things such as eggshells, vegetable peelings and fruit skins really don’t need to be put in the general waste – they’re full of minerals that can help fertilise soil,” says Kirby. “If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, a compost bin will mean your food waste can be reused to power the growth of your plants. If you don’t have a garden, many local authorities will run separate food waste collections to create compost for local parks and gardens, and the act of separating your food waste into a recycling caddy has been proven to make people more aware of what they’re wasting so they can save money by avoiding buying it next time.”
You're forgetting about tea
Be careful about teabags. Because most teabags are sealed with a plastic called polypropylene, the 165 million cups of brew drunk every day in the UK add up to an enormous amount of plastic waste that is either contaminating compost collections or simply gets dumped into landfills. If you want to enjoy a guilt-free cuppa, keep an eye out for eco-friendly teabags like Pukka, Waitrose's Duchy range, and Jacksons of Piccadilly. Or, at the very least, make sure to chuck it in the general waste bin if it can't be recycled.
You’re not giving your old clothes a proper home
It’s always a good idea to streamline your closet and get rid of anything that you haven’t worn in a while or that doesn’t “spark joy”, as organising guru Marie Kondo would say.
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“Learning simple maintenance and repairs of our clothes will make them last infinitely longer, but when they do eventually reach the end of their time even clothes that have been ripped to shreds don’t need to go in the general waste,” says Kirby.

One quarter of clothes in the UK end up in the bin

One quarter of clothes in the UK end up in the bin, but you can always sell pre-owned clothes on apps like Depop or donate them to your local charity shop. If they’re a little too worse-for-wear, stained or damaged clothes can be recycled into new items such as padding for chairs, car seats, cleaning cloths and industrial blankets. Many local councils also offer clothes and textiles collections, so it’s worth a quick google to find out if your council is among them.
You’re throwing away batteries and electricals
Because old gadgets, cables or old electricals don’t come with recycling symbols, it’s understandable you’d want to chuck them in the bin. However, Kirby notes it’s illegal to dump electronics in ordinary rubbish bins. The vast majority of gadgets can be recycled at household waste centres, and you can easily find out if your council collects old electricals via gov.uk.
Batteries are also common recycling culprits. “Disposable batteries are full of nasty chemicals which can be leaked into the earth when left in landfills,” says Kirby. “Most local supermarkets will offer a collection point for used batteries, where they will be safely recycled. If you can, use rechargeable batteries to reduce how much chemical waste you create.”

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