Recycling: Fact and Fiction

Posted 16 March 2021
Lauren Barraclough - Environment and Sustainability Officer
What can be recycled? What can’t? And how can you do your bit towards creating a greener world? As part of Global Recycling Week, Lauren educates us on the facts and fiction of recycling.


  • The energy saved by recycling just 1 aluminium can is enough to run a television for 3 years
  • The energy saved from recycling 1 glass bottle is enough to power a light bulb for 4 hours
  • Recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60watt light bulb for up to 6 hours
  • Bottles and packaging that end up in the sea kill over 1 million marine creatures every year
  • Around 30 million tonnes of household waste is generated in the UK every year of which 5.9 million tonnes is packaging
  • Around 80% of what ends up in our waste disposal could be recycled or reused
  • It takes 80 years for aluminium cans to fully decompose, but can be recycled
  • It takes 500 years for plastic bottles to fully decompose, but can be recycled
  • It takes 1,000,000 years for a glass bottle to fully decompose, but can be recycled
  • If everyone in the UK was able to recycle just 1 more drinks can it would save enough energy to power an electric train from Leeds to Brighton and back 6000 times!
  • 61% of UK waste comes from construction, demolition and excavation
  • Around 95% less energy is used to make products from recycled materials than using raw materials
  • Roughly twothirds of plastic waste in the UK is sent overseas to be recycled - in part, to reduce costs

Rates of recycling across the UK in 2015/16 appear dismal with the majority of councils only scoring between 40-50% in the recycling range, which measures reuse, recycling and composting rates. This could be due to a number of factors, such as: a lack of facilities or council funding; confusion and lack of education on recycling; or that simply not enough packaging is able to be recycled by councils. Of the 26 million tonnes of waste produced in the UK, 12 million tonnes are recycled, and 14 million tonnes are sent to landfill sites, giving an average recycling rate of 45%. Far lower than the world leaders in recycling: Germany, Austria and South Korea all recycling between 60-70%.

Credit: Let's Recycle

Many people want to do their bit for recycling, but it isn’t always easy. Different councils operate different recycling services which will recycle or provide waste management for different items or will even group items in a different way making recycling very confusing, and not every council displays this information thoroughly on its website.

There are other difficulties when trying to recycle, some types of packaging are partially recyclable but separating the plastic from card for example is very difficult. Some packaging you might think is recyclable cannot be as the cardboard has been lined with plastic which is inseparable. This is commonly found the case with prepacked sandwiches.

Credit: The Sun

Supermarkets are beginning to step up though, many now beginning to trial packaging free aisles like Asda’s new sustainability store last year. This could easily be considered a revolutionary step for large supermarkets which strongly favour traditional methods of packaging and convenience at the expense of packaging free solutions. Freshness of produce and shelf life being the main arguments for continued plastic packaging usage, however by switching to local produce and supermarkets reducing their order sizes to reduce waste by improving how they manage the quantities on offer could provide solutions to this to reduce packaging on items.

Credit: ASDA

One big misconception with recycling information on packaging is what is known as the ‘green dot’ symbol. Many people think this symbol on packaging means that the item can be recycled however, this is not always true! This symbol instead is used by companies to prove they have compiled with packaging waste legislation and have made a financial contribution towards recycling efforts. You should always check for the mobius loop or written recycling instructions before deciding if something is recyclable or not.

Credit: American Lifestyle/Pintrest

Finally, here are 10 simple changes you can make:

1. Buy a reusable water bottle and get the refill app on your phone

2. Get a reusable coffee cup for hot drinks on the go

3. Use a bag for life and reuse bags you already have at home

4. Choose a shampoo and shaving bar rather than plastic bottles of liquids and gels

5. If you think you can avoid wet wipes, then do. If you really can’t choose biodegradable!

6. Say no to plastic straws!

7. Avoid plastic cutlery – think about taking reusable cutlery with you.

8. Next time you change your toothbrush, switch the plastic for a bamboo one.

9. Check out your local refill store and start embracing the “reuse, refill” culture when you shop

10. Make sure your tea bags are plastic free


Read more:

Recycling Locator

-     Find out where you can recycle a specific item, your nearest recycling locations and what you can put in your recycling bin at home

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