What really happens to the stuff we put in our blue recycling bins? The search for answers took a LAGER Can team to Kent, as Cathy Swift explains.
In 2021 LAGER Can volunteers removed an estimated 270 tonnes of rubbish from the borough’s streets and open spaces. Sadly, much of it could have been reused or recycled.
Our 2,000 members share a passion for the environment and, like many who have been influenced by stories in the media, were concerned that the items we take such care to recycle might not be recycled at all – and that they could even end up overseas.
We shared our concerns with Catherina Pack, Waste and Street Services Manager at Ealing Council, and she arranged for eight keen recyclists from LAGER Can to visit N+P, the Council’s Materials Reprocessing Facility in Crayford, Kent, to see for themselves what happens to Ealing’s recyclables.
LAGER Can Group Leader Cathy Swift said: “It was such a worthwhile visit, and we all left feeling reassured that we were not wasting our time sorting out our recycling. We were also relieved to learn that rubbish from the Council is processed in the UK into a coal substitute for heavy industry. Nothing ends up in landfill.”
Here are the team’s top recycling tips.
1. Recycling works! It really is worth taking care to recycle all the permitted items. Everything you recycle correctly, at home or in Ealing Council street and park recycling bins, is reprocessed and reused. Plastics, metals and glass are generally reprocessed in the UK. Aluminium cans may be processed in the UK or Germany, based on demand. Aluminium cans and glass bottles have a particularly high reprocessing value. Paper and cardboard are reprocessed in Kent or at one of the modern pulp mills in South East Asia.
2. Check a summary of items accepted by for recycling on the council website. If you have a blue wheelie bin for your recycling, please put your recyclables in the bin loose. Plastic carrier bags are not recyclable by Ealing Council. Please reuse them or recycle them at a soft plastics recycling point (see below).
3. When unacceptable items are found in any batch of recyclables, they have to be manually removed, and the Council (that means we – the residents) have to pay extra for processing. In the worst cases of contamination, a whole batch of recyclables can be rejected, meaning it has to be processed as rubbish, which carries a greater cost.
4. 95% of the sorting of recyclables is done by machine. However, at any one time 50 people carry out manual sorting and quality control. We can make their job more pleasant by ensuring our recycling is not soiled.
5. There are many places that will recycle items Ealing Council won’t accept. Search for them at recyclenow.com. Let us know if you find any errors or omissions.
The dos and don’ts of recycling – including the most troublesome mistakes
- Put waste in your green food recycling caddy or buy a wormery to convert your leftovers into compost. Otherwise put food waste in your black bin or black sacks.
- Never put food in with your recycling. This will contaminate the entire batch of recycling and cause it to be rejected.
- Rinse food containers before recycling. They do not have to be perfectly clean.
- Never put heavily soiled food packaging in your recycling. Put it with your rubbish.
Nappies and sanitary products
- Dispose of nappies and sanitary products, whether soiled or not, with your rubbish. Putting them with your recycling will contaminate the entire batch and it will be rejected.
- Domestic and car batteries can be left in a carrier bag in your blue wheelie bin (or alongside your recycling bags).
- Put any unwanted textiles in a carrier bag alongside your recycling for collection. The crew will put them in a separate compartment of the bin lorry. Textiles collected by Ealing Council are sent to the Salvation Army. Mixing textiles with your recycling may cause the batch to be rejected because the processor can’t handle them.
- Alternatively, take them to a charity shop or a charity textiles bin, or offer them for reuse (see below).
Paper and cardboard
- Recycle dry paper and cardboard. If items are too large for your recycling bin, tear or cut them into smaller pieces. Store any excess in clear plastic bags and place by your recycling bin on collection day. Newspapers, magazines, envelopes (including window), catalogues, directories, junk mail and shredded paper are all acceptable. There’s no need to remove Sellotape or other plastic tape from paper or cardboard packaging, as it comes away during reprocessing.
- Don’t allow paper and cardboard to get wet. The cost of processing is estimated by weight, and wet paper and card weigh much more than dry items. It will therefore be rejected.
- Recycle gift wrapping paper as long as (1) it does not have glitter, and (2) when you scrunch it up it stays scrunched.
- Recycle pizza and other fast food packaging, provided it is not heavily soiled. Tear any heavily soiled bits off and put them with your rubbish.
- Recycle food and drink cartons (Tetrapak-style, eg juice, soup and milk cartons).
- Recycle aluminium drinks and food cans. If lids or ring pulls have become detached, place them in the cans and crush them. Don’t separate the lids or ring pulls from food cans or they will fall through the conveyor belt at the recycling plant.
- Recycle aluminium foil packaging and wrapping. Rinse first. Collect foil wrapping and squeeze into a roll or clump before putting in with your recycling. This enables it to be pulled out by electromagnet or by hand. Don’t put heavily soiled aluminium foil in with your recycling.
- Recycle aerosol cans. Remove caps.
- Recycle nitrous oxide ‘bullets’. These items, usually silver in appearance and about 7cm long, are often found in open spaces having been used by recreational drug takers. They are made of steel and can be recycled.
- Never put Camping Gaz or any other gas bottles, including large nitrous oxide gas chargers, in with your recycling as they are likely to explode and cause injury.
- Don’t put saucepans, frying pans, etc in with your recycling.
- Recycle plastic bottles, tubs and pots. Rinse, squash and replace the lids.
- Don’t put soft plastic items in with your recycling. Save your clean cling film, food bags, crisp packets and carrier bags, etc and take to a supermarket which accepts them, eg, Tesco, Co-op etc. Soft plastics can be reprocessed into plastic bags, boards (an alternative to plywood) or polymer for reprocessing into other plastic items.
- Don’t put hard plastic items in with your recycling. Take non-packaging hard plastic items such as washing up bowls, buckets, Tupperware, toys, etc to a charity shop or offer them for reuse (see below).
- Don’t put loose lids in with the recycling as they will fall through the conveyor belt during processing.
- Rinse glass jars and bottles and replace the lids before putting in with your recycling. Do not remove the lids or recycle them separately, as they will fall through the conveyor belt during processing.
- Don’t put drinking glasses or Pyrex in with your recycling. Offer undamaged items for re-use.
- Don’t put light bulbs in with your recycling. Put older-style light bulbs with your rubbish. You can return energy-saving lightbulbs to selected retailers.
- Broken glass and window glass should be carefully wrapped up and put in with your rubbish. Don’t put broken glass in with your recycling as it could cause injury to a refuse collector or recycling operative.
Other common items NOT to put in with your recycling
- Jiffy bags
- Pringles and similar cartons
- Coffee cups and lids: Costa takes back its own cups and those from other retailers. Otherwise put in with your rubbish
Before discarding them, consider if any of these items could be reused, or used for craft projects. For example, corks can be used for drainage in plant pots.
Ideas for disposing of non-recyclables that you no longer want (but someone else might!)
1. Offer them to your friends and neighbours. But please don’t leave them on the pavement as this counts as fly-tipping. If you’re caught, your good intention could lead to a fine.
2. Offer them on social media sites. You’d be surprised at the level of interest in your unwanted items, and you can state that items have to be collected. Examples include Facebook group Ealing Reduce, Reuse, Recycle; OLIO; Freecycle; Freegle and Nextdoor.
3. Take them to a charity shop.
4. If you can’t get to a charity shop when it’s open (note that leaving items outside is fly-tipping), some charities will collect. Examples include TRAID, the British Heart Foundation, Anglo Doorstep Collections and the homelessness charity, Trinity.
5. Take them to an on-street ‘bring site’. These large bins are operated by charities such as the Salvation Army. Different operators accept different items, including textiles and shoes; small electricals; etc.
6. Offer metal items and car batteries to a scrap metal dealer.
7. Take large items that won’t fit in your rubbish bin to Ealing Council’s Household Waste and Recycling Centre at Greenford. You can access the site by car or bicycle, but not on foot. Visits are by appointment only and disposal of some items is chargeable. Full terms and conditions here.
8. Use Ealing Council’s Bulky Items Collection Service. At £40 for up to eight items, this may not be good value. You could ask your neighbours if they have anything to get rid of so you can share the cost.
9. Hire a commercial rubbish collector. Make sure the collector shows you evidence of having a waste carrying licence. If a disreputable operator subsequently fly-tips your rubbish and it’s traced back to you, you could receive a Fixed Penalty Notice for fly-tipping. Check the register of licensed waste carriers.