Updated: Jan 13, 2020
Your product has served you well and now comes the time to dispose of the empty shell. You squint at the disposal instructions and there it is, yet another recycling symbol that has you thinking WHAT THE!
The good news is that you’re not alone. Nowadays consumers are up against a set of 58 widely-used recycling symbols… that’s more than twice the alphabet! In fact, differentiation has become such a headache that even millennials, which are often perceived as the most woke, have been left baffled. A survey led by the British Science Association in 2018 uncovered that 25 to 34-year-olds are more reluctant to recycle than older generations, stating their inability to determine what can and cannot be recycled as the number one reason (30%).
Long story short, chances are that despite your best efforts, you’ve not been earning full marks.
First things first – recycling house rules
The act of throwing something away into a bin marked recycling is not enough. Recycling is a system dictated by market demand and local regulations, the success of which is reliant on everyone, including you.
Wash first, then recycle. To give them a fair shot, make sure to empty recyclables of their contents. As it cannot be reliably processed, especially food residue is classed as contamination, which if too high could result in the rejection of an entire recycling load. A simple wash with residual dishwater goes a long way to help prevent recycling being burnt or sent to landfill.
On the topic of contamination, keep to assigned bins (they’re there for a reason). Don’t contaminate recycling with general waste and avoid a recyclables mashup where it is not called for. Once at the wrong destination, it becomes near impossible to process items correctly.
Where possible, avoid plastic altogether. And no, we’re not only referring to single-use plastics. Unlike glass and metal, which can be recycled infinitely without losing substance, plastic requires that additional virgin material be added in the recycling process. In this context, you might want to think twice about what recycling actually means.
Now for some myth-busters
What you thought is recyclable at kerbside but actually is not:
Soap pump dispenser tops
Used kitchen roll (compost it instead!)
Metallised wrapping paper
Glass that isn’t a bottle or jar
Greasy takeaway pizza boxes (compost it instead!)
Soft plastic/metallic packaging e.g. pet food pouches
What you thought is not recyclable at kerbside but actually is:
Used but clean kitchen foil and foil trays
Empty deodorant aerosols and hairspray with the plastic cap
Empty surface cleaner bottles with the trigger spray
Empty bleach bottles
Recycling symbols – what this article was originally about (before we opened Pandora’s box)
For a general overview of the most prevalent recycling labels, we recommend you start here. A select few symbols call for a shout-out:
It feels like the first recycling symbol you learned as a kid, but contrary to popular belief this European symbol has nothing to do with the recyclability of the product at hand. All it indicates is that the producer has made some financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe.
Indicative that an item is recyclable, not that it has been recycled or will be accepted in all recycling schemes going forward. A percentage figure in the centre points to what portion of the packaging is made from recycled materials.
Entirely unrelated to recycling and a simple request that you be a good citizen and not litter.
Plastic resin codes
Identifiers of the type of plastic you’re dealing with and governed by a 7-tier classification system. Class 1, PET, has the highest recycling value while class 7 is the catch-all category which includes non-recyclables and bioplastics.
Demonstrates that an item is certified as industrially compostable according to the European standard. Most importantly, never add compostable plastics to your recycling as it is classed contamination. Instead, plastics that carry this symbol should be recycled with your garden waste through your local authority. Note that items that are home compostable, carry an entirely different symbol of their own.
Remember: not all packaging will have a recycling symbol, but this doesn't mean that it can't be recycled.
**DISCLAIMER** All the above is intended for general guidance only. It is highly recommended that you familiarise yourself with your local recycling scheme as there are differences.