Where does our recycling actually go?

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

Let’s face it, we don’t know, do we? In my office, I shove most of my recycling in here (see below), occasionally wondering why it’s necessary to clean food containers, but on the whole glad someone else takes care of my waste:


The story about to be told is a mixed one. Although recycling capacity has dramatically improved over the last decade, I’ll try to demonstrate how the UK’s drive for quantity at the expense of quality has ended up with much of our waste going across the world for reprocessing. I’ll argue that one way to keep it in the UK is for us to put some effort into finding out what we can recycle and taking the advice of that sign in my office –  clean our items.

  1. The sorting process

From your recycling bin, the waste makes its way to a Materials Recovery Facility
(MRF) to be sorted. I live in Wandsworth, London. Our council has a nice and reasonably honest document on recycling: http://www.wrwa.gov.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2009/w/what_happens_to_recycling_final.pdf

There I learned that the council has a contract with a private company (like all councils, I guess) to take our waste to the local MRF in Kent.

There are some clever automated techniques used to sort materials. Some rely on size (e.g. broken glass falls through holes as everything else is bounced along a converyor belt), others on weight (a jet of air blows paper off the conveyor belt), some on shape and weight (horizontal shaking sends light flat materials to the top of a pile whilst small denser ones like cans and bottles go to the bottom), magnetism picks up steel, and clever use of electric currents detects non-magnetic metals including aluminium. Many materials then need further separation, including plastics, but it’s not yet done in the UK (see section 3). The final quality control is done by people.

If you’d like to visualise it, here’s a nice video of the sorting process used in south-west England:


However, there are two main factors which muck up this sorting process.  Firstly, incorrect items being put in the recycling. These have to be picked out, sometimes by hand, and put into landfill. If they’re not spotted, they compromise the quality of the reprocessed material.

The other factor is contaminant on a material – e.g. grease on paper, cheese on pizza boxes. This also compromises the quality of the reprocessed material. I had always assumed that materials like cardboard would be washed as part of the recycling process, but it turns out that we’re supposed to do that before we put it in the recycling. It also turns out that the cost of dealing with these contaminants is driving up the cost of reprocessing (the next step after the MRF) so much that we often can’t afford to do the reprocessing in the UK (more on this later). Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson said: “The drive for quantity has come in part at the expense of quality, and what might be seen as the delivery of cost savings at the collection end of recycling appears simply to be shifting costs into the manufacturing end of recycling.” That is, allowing us to shove everything in the ‘all waste except food’ bin with very minimal instruction is costing us down the line at the stage when sorted waste is to be made into new products. (http://www.edie.net/news/5/MRF-contamination-levels-now-resulting-in-crippling-costs/23754/ ).

2. What is reprocessed in the UK?

Here’s a nice visual where you can click on a material and see if it’s reprocessed in the UK or not: http://www.envirosort.co.uk/where_does_it_all_go.htm

We can recycle steel (in Wales), aluminium (Midlands),glass and paper (Cheshire), some types of plastic (various destinations), and paper (all the newsprint made in the UK is from recycled paper).

Something I want to know is: what about mixed-material packaging, like envelopes and
sandwich wrappers? I love buying a Sainsbury’s Meal Deal due to the (entirely false) feeling of beating the system when I only spend £3 as opposed to the sum of the constituent sandwich, crisps and drink. But the sandwich wrapper is lined with plastic and has a film on the front. Surely the label ‘Bag – paper: widely recycled” is untrue?


3. What is not reprocessed in the UK, and why?

Cartons are a relatively newly recyclable item. Therefore they have to go to a plant in Sweden, where the aluminium and plastic linings can be separated from the cardboard, the former being used for energy, the latter recycled.

The material with the most media attention is plastic. It is actually more profitable to send plastic to China for reprocessing than doing it in the UK. This is because China will pay a lot more for our waste than we can pay in the UK! Ways in which their costs are cut down include: plastic being sent on otherwise-empty ships which have come from China to the UK carrying all the stuff we bought from there, migrant workers being paid very low wages, and not always a lot of concern for the quality or contamination level of the plastic we sell to China.

The Guardian states that, “No detailed studies have been done of the environmental costs of shipping vast quantities of waste from Britain to China” http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/sep/20/environment.china

It claims that we only have plastic recycling now because China actually wants our rubbish. Plastic collection wouldn’t go ahead in the UK at all without this Chinese link. I don’t know exactly how true that is but it does seem that some UK reprocessing plants have gone out of business in recent years.

Is there anything to stop our waste going across the world? Not really. Perusing the DEFRA regulation yielded that although we’re not allowed to accept or export waste for disposal, we are allowed to accept or export waste for reprocessing. In fact, it is encouraged; the following is from DEFRA’s UK Plan for Shipment of Waste (2012):

“The Government has two main policy objectives relevant to shipments of waste for recovery:

–  to encourage international trade in waste for recovery where this is of environmental benefit in driving up levels of recovery at national, EU and global levels;

– to prevent damage to human health or the environment occurring as a result of this international trade.”


But my question is this: how do we know the ‘environmental benefit’ of this process if it is true that there are no good studies of the environmental damage from the transportation?

India rubbish picking

Here is some interesting further reading on the social, environmental and chemical factors involved in plastic recycling:


4. What can we as consumers do to help?

A point made over and over again, not just be me but  by experts such as Andrew Potter of MBA Polymers at the Oxford Climate Forum, is that a very important factor in recycling costs is what the consumer puts in the recycling bin, and in what state it is. So, not to labour the point, but

  1. Make sure you put correct items in the recycling.
  2. Clean the contamination off items.

Or, you could stick a sign up in your office like I’ve done here:

Energy Institute recycling bin modified

I don’t know, it might work in my office since in theory I can guilt trip us as we all work in energy. What more sensible things could you do in your office?

In general, I would like to see:

a)      More feedback to consumers in general on how to recycle, so that costs can be reduced by us recycling correctly. Seems like a no-brainer but it doesn’t happen.

b)       Consumers knowing what leaves the coutry, goes to China, etc. When asked, Sainsbury’s reported sending all its recycling there, Asda doesn’t know where its goes, and Tesco refused to comment (see previous Guardian article). I would like to see a study on the environmental impacts of this.

d)      All of us getting involved in some petitions to end irresponsible dumping of waste in Asia: http://www.ban.org/

5. How do I find out what I can recycle?/Is it different in every area of the UK?

Different local councils have contracts with different private waste management companies which in turn have contracts with sorting and reprocessing plants. This is why if you move to a new city you might not be able to recycle some of the things you used to.

There’s a nice postcode finder here for what you can recycle where:


Below is a very interesting and at times counter-intuitive article on why some materials can and can’t be recycled: it talks about wrapping paper, mushroom punnets, biscuit tins and foil. I didn’t know most of it:


Finally, if you learned something from this article, why not paraphrase it yourself and spread the word?


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