Growing up we learned the 3 Rs of Recycling; reduce, reuse, recycle. We recognise those three folded arrows that have been around since 1970 (which were actually created as part of an Earth Day contest).
Over the last 50 years we have focused on the recycling part. We can now see how ignoring the reduce and reuse has led to a crisis that recycling alone can’t fix.
Nowadays we have 5 Rs; Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose or Repair, and Recycle. You can also make a case for another R- Rot, aka compost.
Notice recycle is last on the list.
The UK can be confusing for recycling because every local authority has it’s own rules and certain facilities for handling waste (unless you live in Wales as they have a country-wide policy).
As of now the UK doesn’t have the capacity to recycle all of the plastic it produces and has no choice but to send it to other countries or to landfill. This is why reducing the plastic in our life is so important and we need to focus on the other 4 Rs first.
If you can’t do one of the 5 Rs then ideally your waste would be compostable and using the landfill is the last resort.
So how well do you know the 5 Rs? Let’s find out.
The first R is to refuse. If you say no to waste in the first place, the following Rs don’t even matter. For example, say no to straws with drinks (even the paper ones). Bring your own containers to the chippy so you can say no to polystyrene take-away boxes.
And here’s an important one; not buying something because it’s eco-friendly, like wax wraps. As nice as they are in theory the most eco-friendly thing you can use is something you already own like a food storage box.
If enough people refuse these types of items, then the demand goes down and ideally disappears or gives way to a closed-loop system of products.
Reduce is next in terms of importance. We are living in a world of fast fashion, fast electronics, fast, disposable everything it seems. We don’t buy with the intention of keeping something, we buy with the intention of upgrading, which leads to a lot of waste.
By reducing the amount we buy and the amount we upgrade, we are reducing waste.
Instead of buying a new outfit every time you go to a birthday party, race day, or a night out with your friends, try rewearing something you already own. If you want something no one has seen, try borrowing something from a friend. If you want something fancy but know it’s a one time occasion try hiring an dress from By Rotation. It’s a fraction of the price, so you get to wear quality clothing and you aren’t left with the guilt of an expensive dress sitting unworn in your wardrobe, or holiday clothes you only wore for that week in Spain two summers ago.
Cheap clothing from fast fashion retailers has a reputation for not lasting, gets worn once, and has a low resale value (think like £1-2, max).
Buy quality over quantity. You want to buy things made to last. And if something goes wrong with your items skip to number four below.
Plastic bags came along as the replacement for paper bags in an effort to save the trees. The problem is that while paper bags were repurposed into homemade textbook covers and costumes in primary schools, plastic bags weren’t being reused from one week to the next.
The waste got out of control and we now are drowning in that plastic.
Items like plastic bags and even bread bags should be used again and again until they fall apart before they are recycled.
Treating recyclables as disposables will not solve our plastic pollution problems. Recycling schemes just can’t keep up.
4. Repurpose or Repair
As mentioned in number 2, quality over quantity is what will help reduce waste. If we buy with the intention of keeping an item, we take better care of those items.
If your favourite coat loses a button or gets a rip in the lining, you repair the item as opposed to putting it in a charity bag or taking it to the tip.
If you have lovely Egyptian cotton towels that have been used to the point of fraying and getting holes or stains, repurpose the towel buy cutting them with pinking shears (to prevent fraying) and use the squares for cleaning cloths, family cloths, or make your own baby spit up rags like I did.
By repurposing or repairing, you are extending the life of your belongings and reducing waste.
Recycling is a plaster for a stab wound. It doesn’t help much. With only 9% of the world’s plastic ever being recycled the best thing we can do is avoid, avoid, avoid single-use plastic as much as possible. You can check out my Beginner’s Guide to Zero Waste for more tips.
Aluminium and glass are valuable for recycling as both can be recycled indefinitely.
When you recycle aluminum, particularly tin foil, first make sure it’s clean of any food waste and dry. Then ball up as much as you can before putting it in the bin.
Small foil wrappers won’t be picked up by the recycling machines so the bigger the ball the better.
Paper is fairly easy to recycle but paper products can only be recycled about 4 times before losing it’s integrity and needing virgin material.
As with aluminium you need to make sure the paper or boxes has no food waste or things like acrylic paint, glue, glitter, or any other artsy embellishment. The food and art materials contaminate the paper making it unrecyclable, hence no pizza boxes, greeting cards, or your kids art projects.
Putting the wrong items in the bin or not disposing of the items properly can contaminate the entire truck of recycling resulting in it all going to landfill.
And then there’s plastic.
There are several types of plastic and though most can be recycled, it’s not as easy as throwing it in the recycling bin.
Plastic has 7 different recycling codes depending on the type of plastic material it is.
Code 1 PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
PET is typically used for bottled drinks and some packaging. It is meant to be a single-use plastic. Boo. The reason? Reusing these bottles increases the chance of the plastic leaching into the contents because the surfaces are porous which is what causes the plastic flavour coming through in the contents.
There are some reusable bottles made from PET but make sure it says so before reusing.
PET can be recycled though and should be. About 60% of PET bottles are recycled in the UK which is good but could be better.
The best alternative would be to bring your own bottle and purchase your soft drinks in in cans or glass bottles.
Code 2 HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)
HDPE is a stiff plastic that is used to make things like detergent bottles, children’s toys, and milk jugs. It is one of the safest plastics to use and also very durable.
HDPE can be reused and recycled.
Code 3 PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
PVC is used for food wraps, bouncy castles and soft play coverings, as well as shower curtains and inflatables. This plastic should not be heated and contains phthalates, which depending on the type used can lead to reproductive defects.
Though we don’t ingest PVC, continuing to use products that increase the production of phthalates can’t be good for the environment.
PVC is also hard to recycle and is generally not collected at the kerbside.
Code 4 LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)
LDPE is found in carrier bags, bread bags, and things like squeezy bottles. It is one of the safest plastics to use and the number to look out for if you end up buying plastic bowls, plates and cups for your toddlers.
Before I changed to a lifestyle of avoiding plastic consumption, I bought what would be safe for my girls and IKEA’s childrens dinnerware is Plastic Code 4.
Despite being safer, LDPE is hard to recycle, hence having to recycle bags at large stores because they likely won’t be collected kerbside.
Code 5 PP (Polypropylene)
PP is most commonly used in things like yogurt pots, medicine containers and ketchup bottles. It is often labelled microwave safe because it is more resistant to heat, but you are still better off transferring the contents to a non-plastic dish and then heating.
Many recycling programs will accept PP, but you need to check with your local authority.
Code 6 PS (Polystyrene)
PS also known as Styrofoam is commonly used in take-away containers and packing peanuts. This type of plastic leaches toxic chemicals if heated and is hard to recycle.
Code 7 Other/PC (BPA, Polycarbonate)
Bisphenol A (BPA) is famous for leaching into baby bottles years ago and was ultimately found to be an endocrine disruptor that can disrupt normal hormone functions. Given that hormones regulate almost everything on our bodies this is scary.
BPA is now banned in baby products but can still be found in other products though many companies proudly write BPA-free, but have replaced it with similar bisphenol chemicals like BPS which turns out to be just as bad.
BPA and the alternatives have been found to disrupt sperm count and egg quality which can be passed down to future generations as well!
Avoid Products with number 7, Other or PC in the triangle.
Check out RecycleNow.com to find out what specifically gets collected in your area. Recycling should be a last resort when it comes to plastic. Try to avoid single-use plastic as much as possible.
If you have to buy plastic look for bulk containers of yogurt instead of individual pots. Section the yogurt into your own containers. You will reduce the plastic waste and you will save money as well as the single-serving yogurts tend to cost more.
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Make sure to check out the On-Pack Recycling Labels (OPRLs) as there will be additional information as to what parts of the packaging is or isn’t recycled.
One extra advantage to this is, if you are trying to avoid plastic all together, the OPRLs can tell you if there is hidden plastic packaging inside a box. I know so many (myself included) who have been duped thinking they bought zero-waste chocolates only to open the box and find everything is wrapped in plastic!
Often if you check the back of the packaging it will have an OPRL for each component of the packaging so you can easily see if there is hidden plastic lurking.
Beware of TetraPaks
Tetra Paks are the containers used for milk alternatives and for several juices. The cartons are made of a mix of materials and have a different recycling process. Some authorities will recycle them at the kerbside, others require that you bring them directly to your HWRC.
Tetra Pak had to spend time and money teaching authorities how to recycle their product. Now that they are recyclable, unless you go to the tip regularly chances are most people still won’t be bothered.
This would be a good point to bring up with your council asking them to collect more from the kerbside to encourage less waste.
Recycle More Through Terracycle
Let’s face it some products just don’t have a plastic free option and not everyone has the means, skills, or time to make their own from scratch. Luckily there’s a program that recycles the obscure items that your local authority won’t.
Terracycle has made it a point to recycle the things that “can’t” be recycled like contact lenses, crisp and confectionary wrapping, and ballpoint pens. You collect those items and take them to recycle points where they are recycled into useful things like picnic tables and park benches.
Many of the drop off locations are local schools and by dropping your waste off there, the school benefits from Terracycle’s point system that allows the schools to earn money.
This will take some extra effort on your part as it means saving your recycling and remembering to take it to drop off points. But at least you know that your waste has a better chance being recycled through these schemes and not becoming a problem in another country.
Food waste is a huge issue worldwide. In 2018 the UK threw away 6.6 million tonnes of food waste and 70% of it was food that could have been eaten.
Sending that food waste to the landfill creates methane gas because the food is in a bin bag that doesn’t allow oxygen in to break it down. So not only is it wasteful but is contributing to greenhouse gases.
By setting up a compost heap in your garden you can get rid of not only food waste but paper waste that can’t be recycled (like pizza boxes and used tissue) Instead of creating greenhouse gases, composting creates lovely compost for the garden and can also provide a habitat and food for insects, frogs and toads.
My council is piloting a food waste bin (not in my area, boo), so it is worth writing to your council to see if they plan to implement a similar program and in my case ask when it will be rolled out to my area.
Of course, the best way to reduce food waste is to not have it in the first place, see number two above. Meal planning and sticking to a shopping list are both easy ways to reduce your food waste and save money on your shopping bill.
What Happens to Waste in Landfills?
Waste heading off to a landfill will have one of two options; either to get incinerated or buried. Burning the waste will lead to carbon dioxide air pollution but Sweden burns their waste to provide heating and electricity for almost 2 million people. Yes, it still produces waste in the terms of air pollution, but is it any worse than what manufacturers produce and vehicles and…landfills?
Landfills are like garbage cemeteries. The waste gets buried where it will slowly decompose (like thousands of years if it’s plastic). And because there is no oxygen to help break down the waste, garbage like food scraps will release methane gas which makes up 10% of the world’s greenhouse gases. The gases that contribute to global warming.
The best thing we can do is to keep as little waste going to landfills as possible. If you can afford to, make the switch to compostable bin liners so when the waste does arrive at the landfill (ideally), the bag will break down and allow air in to break down the contents of the bag.
The More You Know
Having a better understanding of how you can use the 5Rs to reduce your waste and leave a smaller footprint on the planet is key to making changes. If we consciously think about where each purchase fits in those Rs we can make better choices including the choice to not buy at all. I hope this helps you reduce your waste.
Grab Your Recycling Cheat Sheet Here!
With this Cheat Sheet you will never again be confused with what can and can’t go in your recycling bin. There’s even a sheet of tips with items that you might not think can be recycled but actually can!