Are you ‘wish-cycling’?

Wish-cycling – putting items in a recycling bin when you’re not sure whether they are recyclable or not and just hoping for the best.

According to polls, two-thirds of us (in the UK) admit to being confused about what can and can’t go in the recycling bin.

This does not surprise me at all! I also get confused and there is a lot of misinformation out there that doesn’t make it any easier.

Every year, British households throw away 22 million tons of waste.

The European Union has a target of recycling 50% of that by 2020 but it’s unclear what targets will apply in the UK post-Brexit.

So, how does recycling actually work?

There are 450 councils, each with its own set of rules and regulations so in order to know exactly what your household can recycle, check out the gov website. Pop in your postcode to find a handy guide on what can and can’t be recycled where you live and when they collect.

After collection, items are sorted by machines at recycling centres which separate plastics, paper, aluminum, and other recyclables. These machines are quite complex and if something incorrect ends up in there, it can jam it or even cause it to break. Common culprits for this are soft plastics and small items like bottle tops. Once sorted, recycling centres sell on the materials for the next stage. If a batch is contaminated by something that can’t be recycled, the whole batch ends up in landfill.

Items that often end up in recycling bins but can’t actually be recycled

Pizza boxes – pizza boxes with grease on them can’t be recycled because the oil clogs the machines. However, if the box is just cardboard and has no plastic coating it can actually be put into compost.

Plastic bags – thin, soft plastics like plastic bags and films can get stuck in the machines and jam them. These need to go into landfill so are best avoided wherever possible.

Shredded paper – again, the pieces are too small and can get stuck in the machine. It is still important to shred documents with personal information so opt for paperless where possible so you have less to shred in the first place.

Receipts – most receipts are coated in plastic and contain BPAs. If they get added to recycling, the BPA can contaminate the other materials. Refuse receipts or ask if they can be emailed to you instead.

Bottle tops – bottle tops are too small for the machines to sort. Throw plastic ones in the regular bin and use an old can to collect metals one. Seal it up and put it in the recycling!

How are materials recycled?

Paper – Paper is separated into types and grades. It’s is then washed with soapy water to remove inks, plastic film, staples and glue and then mixed with water. The slurry is spread using large rollers into large thin sheets. The paper is left to dry, and then it is rolled up ready to be cut.

Glass – The glass is sorted by colour and washed to remove any impurities. Then it’s crushed and melted and moulded into new products. Glass does not degrade through the recycling process, so it can be recycled again and again.

Aluminium – In the treatment plant the aluminium is sorted and cleaned ready for reprocessing. It then goes through a re-melt process and turns into molten aluminium to remove coatings and inks that may be present. The aluminium is then made into large blocks called ingots. The ingots are sent to mills where they are rolled out.

Plastic – plastic is the most complex and problematic. While there are some advantages – it’s water resistant, durable – we are producing far too much ‘virgin’ plastic and not recycling enough of what is already in circulation. If you want to read in more detail about how it’s recycled, check out this website –

78 million tons of plastic packaging is produced every year!

Of that;

14% gets collected for recycling

2% gets recycled into new packaging

14% gets incinerated

40% goes to landfill

30% ends up polluting the enviornment

When plastics are taken to recycling centres, there are two options. Send to processers in the UK or export it to be “recycled’ overseas. There are subsidies in place which mean than plastic that stays in the UK must be sorted and the subsidy only applies to the recyclable materials. If the full batch is exported, the subsidy is paid for the full amount. The issue is, there is no guarantee that the exported materials it will actually be recycled. Importers of plastic, like China, then end up receiving low quality mixed bales that are totally useless to them and then end up sitting around for months of even years until they eventually get sent to landfill. It also inflates the recycling rates because everything exported is counted as recycled, even when it’s not. More info on the subsidy and exportation here.

What are the alternatives?


TerraCycle is an innovative recycling company that has become a global leader in recycling typically hard-to-recycle waste.TerraCycle was founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky, then a student at Princeton University, on a mission towards Eliminating the Idea of Waste®. From these humble beginnings TerraCycle has grown into the global leader in collecting and repurposing hard­-to-­recycle waste: operating in over 20 countries, engaging over 60 million people, and recycling billions of pieces of waste through various innovative platforms.

With Terracycle, you can recycle things like contact lenses, bread bags (soft plastics) and crisp packets. You can use their post code search to find local public drop off points.

Lots of retailers now also have drop off points in store. Pop into your local Boots with your old contact lens packets and The Body Shop to recycle your old toiletry and cosmetic containers.


An ecobrick is a building block made entirely from unrecyclable plastic. It’s created by filling a plastic bottle with clean, dry plastic until it’s packed tightly and can be used as a building block.

Ecobricks can be used in all sorts of sustainable building projects, which makes them a great way to dispose of plastic waste that would otherwise end up in landfill, and potentially, the ocean.

Plastic is very durable and eco bricks make great building blocks that last and are also water resistant. Making ecobricks out of the non-recyclable plastic you collect is an amazing way to keep it out of landfill and be give new life in a really useful form.

My Top Tips

  • Embrace minimalism – buying less means less packaging and waste in the first place
  • Use less plastic and opt for materials that are easier to recycle like glass and metal
  • Upcycle/reuse as much as you can so that you don’t have to throw out as much
  • Make Eco bricks with unrecyclable plastic
  • Use Terracycle for hard to recycle items like crisp packets
  • Properly clean and separate everything you put in your recycling
  • Demand a better system – even if you do all the right things, millions of tons of waste is still out there causing havoc so the system has to be changed for the better. George Eustice was appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 13 February 2020 – write to him and let him now what you think!

Follow – @PlasticFreeMermaid

Watch – Dirty Business