Recycling contamination – quite possibly two of the least sexy words ever, but with the potential to put our best efforts at saving the planet to waste.
In 2018, UK councils sent 500,000 tonnes of recycling to landfill because of contamination, according to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). That’s half a million tonnes of material that could have been recycled into something else – a completely avoidable situation.
Contamination occurs when people put the wrong items or items that haven’t been washed out properly in their recycling bins. It’s something we’re probably all guilty of, but it’s costing councils – and therefore taxpayers – a lot of money and means truck loads of recycling are being diverted to waste.
It’s a messy issue. A recent poll of 2,000 Brits by coffee company Lavazza found 86% of people care about recycling and over half want to get better at it. But confusion is causing major hurdles – from not knowing which box to use, to inconsistencies between different local authorities, and mixed messages as to which materials can be recycled in the first place.
So, why is recycling so complicated?
A massive 80% of Brits say they feel “exasperated” about recycling. And no wonder. Recycling processes vary across councils. So while one area might recycle glass, another won’t. If you move home and area, which plenty of people do, you might find yourself living somewhere with a completely different recycling system. Yet you won’t necessarily be aware of it.
There are two main types of recycling collection used by councils in the UK.
First up is kerbside sorting, where materials are separated at point of collection on the kerbside – you put your paper, plastics and glass in different recycling bins, before being placed in separate compartments in the collection lorry. Then there’s co-mingled (mixed) dry recycling, where various recyclable materials (think paper, cardboard, plastic bottles) are all put in one recycling bin, collected together in the lorry, then sorted at a recycling facility.
HuffPost UK contacted 41 councils across the UK and found that self-reported contamination rates were higher in council areas using the single bin system.
Of the 20 councils that responded to HuffPost UK’s request for information, the London Borough of Newham reported some of the highest rates of contamination: 18.5% of material collected for recycling is classed as contaminated.
Newham collects mixed dry recycling and doesn’t offer kerbside sorting. Items such as glass, which are commonly recycled elsewhere, aren’t by this council. Among the key contaminants in the area is glass, alongside food waste, black bags and non-recyclable plastics.
One small blessing for residents in Newham, however, is that contaminated loads aren’t sent to landfill. Instead, all household waste is sent to a local processing unit where it’s made into bails of fuel and then used to create cement or electricity. But this isn’t the picture for other councils in the UK.
Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council in Northern Ireland has both collection systems in operation and reports different contamination rates for each. Less than 0.1% of kerbside sorted recycling is contaminated, a spokesperson said, compared to a 15% contamination rate for mixed dry recycling.
Which items are contaminating recycling bins?
Nappies are a big culprit. One in 10 UK parents of kids aged three and under admit to putting them in with the household recycling (spoiler: they should be going in with your normal, day-to-day household waste). Multiple councils cite nappies as a common contaminant. However they’re not the only offenders.
Food-soiled packaging. The London Borough of Bexley is one of many boroughs to report an issue with packaging put in the recycling bin with food left on it. This includes items like dirty margarine tubs, half-eaten yogurt in pots, or even liquid left in drinks bottles, a council spokesperson said.
Plastic bags, polystyrene and plastic films, the ones you pull off the tops of ready meals and which cards can be found wrapped in, are frequently found in recycling by Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council. And other councils also cited plastic film as a common contaminant.
Textiles (including clothes) are contaminating recycling for half of the council that responded to HuffPostUK.
Crisp packets crop up in recycling repeatedly, as reported by Welwyn Hatfield Borough, East Devon District and Ceredigion councils.
More obscure contaminants found in recycling bins include sanitary products, plastic toys, and greasy pizza boxes.
What happens to contaminated recycling?
In cases where a truck’s load of co-mingled recycling is heavily contaminated, the whole load – in some cases, streets-worth of recycling – may be diverted to household waste or sent to landfill. As well as being a waste of time and money, this is frustrating for those who painstakingly wash out and separate their recycling only to discover their next-door neighbour is sloppy with theirs.
Dealing with contaminants is “dirty work” for those who work in waste management, said a spokesperson for North London’s Waste Authority (NLWA), which works with seven local authorities in London.
Where a lorry-load of recycling is ‘contaminated’ with high volumes of non-recyclable materials like soiled nappies, textiles and food waste, the recycling materials sorting plants must decide whether it’s practicable to recycle that material or whether it will have to be disposed of as waste,” NLWA explained.
Where there are lower levels of contamination, the sorting plants may accept the material, but spare a thought for their staff who have to sort it by hand.
“They pick out things like clothes, wood, polystyrene, but also sanitary products, nappies, food waste, and sometimes, entire bags of general waste,” said the NLWA spokesperson. “This is very dirty work.”
Greater efforts from everyone are worth it, they added: “Working together, residents and councils can make this situation much better. During a climate emergency it is simply not acceptable that we are in the position of having to dispose of perfectly good, recyclable material.”
What can we do about contamination?
There are actions being taken to reduce contamination – some councils leave notes on people’s bins or simply refuse to empty them if they’re contaminated, while others have pumped money into raising awareness of the issue.
A Which? survey found 27% of people think their council’s communication on recycling is poor. And while councils need to educate and make people aware, it’s equally up to the public to pull its finger out and learn about what they can and can’t recycle locally, so they don’t contaminate the load.
The London Borough of Bexley, where annually 330 tonnes of recycling is contaminated out of 46,000 tonnes overall, takes a strict approach to keeping contamination levels low. “We have a policy that the contamination is not collected and a card or tag is left,” said a spokesperson. “We then provide the resident with further advice and guidance on what can or cannot be recycled and advice that food packaging needs to be clean. We follow this up with visits and this usually remedies the problem.” They noted that this approach is harder to implement where bins are shared, for example in blocks of flats.
Bath and North East Somerset Council has contamination rates of approximately 1% (equating to 144 tonnes a year). The council attributes this to a stringent kerbside sorting process where most items are collected but non-recyclable items are left behind with a note explaining why. Contamination slows down collections as it takes the crews longer to sort, a spokesperson said.
“Too much contamination could lead to the whole load not being suitable for recycling and having to be thrown away instead,” they added. “We know sometimes it can be confusing but just because something has a symbol to say it can be recycled, doesn’t mean the council is able to collect it.”
If you are unsure of what can be recycled, visit your local council’s website to find out more. Some councils, like Newham, even have a ‘recycleopedia’ where you can type in a specific material and find out if it’s recycled or not.
Westminster Council, which has a contamination rate of about 10%, is urging people not to “wish-cycle” – where people don’t know if an item is recyclable but put it in with the recycling anyway. A spokesperson said: “If you don’t know whether it can be recycled or not, leave it out [of the recycling bin].”