Recycling is no longer an ecological option, but an economic necessity, and the waste management business has come up with ingenious solutions to make recycling easier and more efficient.

There was a time, not long ago, when recycling was just a healthy option, a gesture to the environment expressed by regular weekend excursions in the car to the bottle bank. Now recycling is not an option: it is a necessity, backed by government policy and EU targets. For economic as well as environmental reasons, we cannot just keep on dumping our rubbish in the ground, or burning it in incinerators: we have to reduce its volume, and we have to make maximum use of the processed materials it contains. That's the idea, at least, but in Britain our record to date is poor: we currently recycle just over 20 per cent of our rubbish - one of the lowest rates in Europe.

What we can recycle

With increasing urgency, local authorities in Britain are encouraging householders to recycle. At present we tend to recycle a limited range of items. Essentially these are products made of a single material that can be easily reprocessed. The most common are glass (bottles and jars), paper (newspapers, magazines, junk mail etc), cardboard, aluminium drinks cans and steel food tins, and recyclable plastic bottles (made, for example, with poly ethylene terepthalate (PET) or high density poly ethylene (HDPE), and marked with a recycling symbol). Local authorities will arrange collection of these items, in parallel with the collection of domestic waste.

Getting it wrong

The lists of what householders can and cannot put out for recycling are often long and complex - and differ from borough to borough. It is not easy to get it right. Some authorities, for instance, will take the tops of plastic bottles, others won't. Some take cardboard, old clothes and tin foil; others don't. Usually excluded are plastic supermarket bags, waxed paper juice cartons, and many forms of plastic packaging, such as yoghurt pots, margarine tubs and meat trays. To get it right, look out for the literature distributed by your local authority, or consult its website.

Separation and co-mingling

At some point along the line, your recycled items have to be separated out for reprocessing. There are three ways of doing this.

  • Get the householder to do it. But this requires separate bins, and not every householder has the space, or the inclination.
  • Separate the items manually on the collection wagon (the householders put all the items together in a box). This is labour-intensive.
  • Separate the items manually and mechanically at a depot (the householder puts all the items in the same bag).

Local authorities have the task of judging which method works best for them. Their decision will be based on the need to encourage the maximum number of people to recycle the maximum volume of rubbish, weighed against the cost of processing the material, and the potential financial benefits (from reducing landfill costs, and from selling recyclable material to manufacturers). Local authorities are increasingly inclined to the last of the three options: processing mixed (or 'co-mingled') recyclable material in specially equipped depots known as Material Recycling Facilities (MRFs - commonly pronounced 'Murfs').


Material Recycling Facilities use a mixture of manual and mechanical separation processes. Collection lorries unload the co-mingled recyclable material onto conveyor belts, where the separation process begins. Shaking tables may be used to separate bottles and cans from the paper. Giant magnets are used to extract steel cans. Eddy Current Separators can be used to extract aluminium and other metals. Only the small amount of unusable material left at the end of the process will be despatched to landfills.

The economic benefits of recycling

Manufacturing glass, steel, aluminium and paper from recycled materials costs considerably less than manufacturing from raw materials. For instance, making aluminium cans from recycled cans costs about 20 per cent less than manufacturing them from ore. Recycled materials are used to make a surprising range of products: paper, for instance, is pulped to produce recycled paper, of course, but also building boards, and the card used to line the inside of motor vehicles. HDPE plastic can be turned into plastic pipes and flowerpots; while PET plastic is often used to make textiles, carpets, and fibres for loft insulation and clothing.

And we can recycle more

Numerous other items can be recycled, even if they can't be put out for collection with the usual mix of paper, cans and glass. They include clean wood, clothes and textiles (used to make, for example, felt carpet underlay), and engine oil (used to make heavy fuel oil). Electrical goods (fluorescent tubes, TVs, computer monitors, and other household appliances) can also be taken for recycling, and are stripped back to their component parts. Your local authority should provide facilities for the receipt of such items, for example at a household waste recycling centre: find out when and where by consulting its website.


Currently the UK sends 80 per cent of its rubbish to landfill sites and incinerators - despite the fact that 60 per cent of it could potentially be recycled. The government's stated target is to increase the proportion of rubbish that is recycled to 48 per cent by 2020.


If you have a garden, you can usefully turn vegetable kitchen waste and garden clippings into compost. This reduces your volume of domestic waste, makes it less messy, and results in a useful product. Many local authorities offer, at a subsidised price, very effective composting bins for use in your garden. Those new to composting will be amazed just much kitchen waste you can put into a moderate size composting bin (say, of 220 litres): at least twenty times the volume of the resulting compost. (Note you have to be careful what you put into your compost bin: for reasons of health and safety, you cannot include meat scraps, for instance, or domestic pet excrement.)

In some countries, such as the Netherlands, householders can put vegetable waste into a separate bin, and put it out for collection alongside other separated recyclable goods. This goes off to vast municipal composting heaps - so big and effective that they can make finished compost in just three weeks. In Britain, only 5 per cent of kitchen and garden waste is composted, whereas 40 per cent is a feasible figure. This is mainly because of a lack of agreement about content and procedures; but many local authorities will take away 'green' garden waste if correctly separated and bagged; this is then processed and composted.

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megan 16 March, 2011


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