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Sort It Out! – The Messy World of Recycling


I recycle, and I like to think I know what I am doing. Paper and card goes in the little black boxes. Garden waste goes in the green bin. Food waste goes in the little green caddie. Glass, tins, and plastic all go in the black bin. Mrs Kelvey and I even take our flexible plastic wrap to a nearby supermarket, and our cartons and batteries to be recycled at the local refuse centre. All of this means that very little waste ends up in the “non-recyclable” brown bin; I (smugly) don’t even bother putting it out some weeks. I am doing my bit.

And I am not alone. According to a recent report by recycling action group WRAP (here), 90% of UK citizens regularly recycle, with just 2% of survey respondents claiming to recycle rarely or not at all. All good news.

However, while it seems we are nation of enthusiastic eco-warriors, it turns out we aren’t always very good at it. As well-meaning as we are, the WRAP report highlights two key areas where the Great British public are falling short.


Firstly, there is “missed capture”. This describes waste which could be recycled, but instead incorrectly finds its way into general waste. The biggest culprit is glass perfume and aftershave bottles which 52% of UK citizens put in general rubbish despite them usually being accepted at curb side recycling (who knew?). Other key offenders are aluminium foil which 27% of us don’t bother to recycle, and aerosol cans which 22% of us put in the general waste bin. These represent missed opportunities to keep material out of landfill. However, these materials are not recycled everywhere in the UK so please check with your local authority before trying.

Secondly, the report considered “contamination”. This describes waste which is not suitable for recycling locally but is often still placed in recycling bins. The most common contaminant is drinking glasses which are usually not accepted by local authorities but 33% of us give it a go anyway. 29% of us try to recycle foil food pouches, and 26% put toothpaste tubes in the plastic waste; usually neither of these can be recycled. This does much more than simply take up unnecessary space in the recycling bin. Certain contaminants can be difficult to extricate from the genuine recyclable waste and can result in whole batches of material being sent to landfill. The report highlighted several such serious non-recyclable contaminants including glass cookware (e.g. Pyrex®) which 22% of Britons (perhaps understandably) put in the glass recycling bin, and pots and pans which 14% of us try to recycle with our tin cans. An incredibly optimistic 1% of the population even try to recycle used nappies, another serious contaminant. In all, 84% of UK citizens engage in contamination, or “wish-cycling”.

Figure 1 – From “Recycling Tracking Survey” by WRAP, October 2022

Interestingly, when both “missed capture” and “contamination” are taken into account, women are better at recycling than men, and those who live in the countryside are better at recycling than their urban neighbours. Perhaps surprisingly, those aged 55 and over are better at recycling than those aged between 18 and 35 who are so often characterised as being particularly passionate about the environment.

Bin There

These recycling blunders are hardly surprising. The UK is a confusing patchwork of bin colours, niche rules, and recycling contradiction. What you can recycle depends on where you live and the rules vary considerably. In the London Borough of Westminster, aerosol cans and aluminium foil goes in the mixed recycling bin, but over the river in Lambeth these items are not accepted for recycling at all. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, garden and food waste goes in the same recycling bin, which is brown; over the border in Doncaster, garden waste goes in the green bin and food waste is not recycled. Barrow-In-Furness Borough Council recycles just 18.7% of its domestic waste, the lowest rate of any local authority in England (here). Nevertheless food and drink cartons (like Tetra Pak) can be recycled in the red bin. By contrast, if you live in St Albans, where a commendable 63% of household waste is recycled, your food and drink cartons are not recycled at the curb side so you need to take them to the tip like I do.

If we are to reduce both “missed capture” and “contamination”, a first step may be to harmonise the recycling system across the country so a single set of rules and bin colours can become engrained in the national consciousness. This may help to avoid the apparent widespread confusion. However, would it not it be better if we didn’t need to sort our waste at all?

Scrapheap Challenge

London based recycling consultancy Nextek Ltd. recently launched Nextloopp, a global project aiming to simplify the sorting of plastic waste. The technology involves applying coded fluorescent labels to plastic packages that can be read by high-speed optical sorting machines. The labels, invisible in most circumstances, allow the optical machines to distinguish between food-grade and non-food-grade polymers, and can help to sort polypropylene packaging, sleeved PET bottles, and high-density polyethylene milk bottles. Additionally, the labels use materials from recycled fluorescent lamps (here).

Norwegian recycling technology company TOMRA, already an established provider of waste sorting technology, is developing improved optical sorting systems which use a convolutional neural networks to detect and classify objects. As described in international patent application WO 2021/089602 A1, unlike systems of the prior art, the sorting system can identify overlapping objects, group these objects, and thereafter treat them as a single unit. This can advantageously prevent unwanted material being kept, or wanted material being ejected, depending on how the system is set up. The result of this is that sorting throughput may be at least 50% faster than traditional processing methods which often struggle to handle overlapping waste.

Figure 2 – Fig. 1 from WO 2021/089602 A1

Dutch circular economy start-up Umincorp (or Urban Mining Corp) uses novel “Magnetic Density Separation” technology to separate flakes of mixed plastic waste. The process is able to sort and recover an impressive 90% of the plastic. The resulting material is also of such purity that it can be used in products which traditionally require virgin plastic. As described in US patent application US 2021/0187516 A1, the system immerses the flakes in a magnetic process liquid and applies a magnetic field to the liquid. The application of a magnetic field to the process liquid varies the liquid’s density. As a result, flakes of different polymers will sit at different depths in the process liquid depending on the density of each polymer allowing the flakes to be sorted.

The drive to a circular economy requires far more of our waste to be recycled, as we previously reported here. The first, and often only step we as consumers need to do in this process is sort our waste, and it turns out we can’t even get that right. But as the technology improves, algorithms rather than our own blind optimism will sort our waste, and more of it will be effectively recycled as a result. Who knows, this technology may herald in a new utopia where we don’t need to sort our rubbish at all.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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