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To Bin or Not to Bin?

Recycling day is fraught in our house. We’re not disciplined about where stuff is stored so the every fortnight the kitchen turns into a leaky, smelly sorting bay. Nor are we certain what items, plastics in particular, can be recycled. The job is never done early enough and so generally takes place in the dark. Sometimes we forget and have to scamper out at seven in the morning when we here the lorry growling down the road. Still, we’re slightly better than many: according to a recent survey conducted by the recycling company Viridor, around 43% of the population isn’t even sure on what day their recycling collection is made.

Consumer confusion extends to other areas. The lack of a national standard for bin colours and packaging guidelines are often cited as an obstacle to successful recycling: in Viridor’s survey, about 70% respondents said they felt inadequately informed. Even assuming clear understanding, people also need the space and the time to classify everything. Some things can be recycled at a local centre but not collected from the kerbside, so creating storage and transport problems. Products are available in an increasingly bewildering range of packaging. the recyclability of which is often unclear or may vary depending on the collector. Our purchases are now more various, hybrid and unprecedented than ever before. Unfortunately, much the same can be said of their packaging.

It’s perhaps therefore no surprise that DEFRA recently reported that, for the first time since its records began, recycling fell in 2015-16 (43%, down from 43.7% the year before). However, this may not be a simple case of confused consumers giving up. A recent investigation by Peter Jones of Isonomia points out that 45,000 more tonnes of rubbish were collected in 2015-16 than the year before: what changed was a record level of rejections, which ended in the landfill. This suggested that either councils had previously been under-reporting rejections (according to this report, some in earlier years had been ‘implausibly low’) or that they were getting better at spotting what was in the wrong box. The Daily Telegraph reported in July 2017 that research by the charity Wrap revealed that nearly 90% of consumers admitted to recycling some things wrongly and that only 12% always got it right.

A fresh level of confusion is caused by the increased use of bioplastics, made wholly or partly from renewable materials and which can be recycled, though some more easily than others. This report in The Guardian suggests these may not be the panacea many might think and might even be doing more harm than good. Their raw materials need to be grown, which removes land from food production. They require energy to manufacture. Many will bio-degrade, though maybe not before they’ve been ingested by animals. Others can only be recycled or composted commercially, not in a domestic compost heap. The packaging minefield becomes even more complex, with terms starting with prefixes like ‘bio’ creating a false impression of environmental safety. And, at the end of it all, what is left is useless for most purposes. “It doesn’t make environmental sense,”  Tom Sazky, the CEO of recycling company TerraCycle, concludes, “to take a plant, convert it into a highly refined petrochemical, only to then use it once and turn into something effectively worse than soil.”

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that more is still going into landfill than should be, even if the recent fall in recycled items is perhaps not as depressing as it might appear. Things have improved: in 2001 the UK was recycling only 10% of its waste. Isonomia suggests that the current levelling off of the figures is due to two main causes: increasing financial pressure being placed on local councils; and that the easy recycling gains have already been made. Satisfactorily dealing with common and easily identifiable items like glass bottles and tin cans was both fairly easy to explain and fairly cheap to do. Future progress towards the EU’s 50% recycling target for 2020 is likely to be increasingly difficult and expensive.

Penny and I make efforts to avoid buying food in plastic wrappers but if you ever shop in supermarkets this is next to impossible. We try to buy more things at markets and independent shops, less convenient and more expensive though this sometimes, though not always, is – the myth of the infallible cheapness of supermarkets for comparable goods is worth dispelling. This also increases the chances of the food being seasonal. Supermarkets have annihilated the calendar: but that is a separate debate.

I wondered what pubs and restaurants do, as these consume (and so potentially waste) as much as do 20 domestic kitchens. I remembered that Ollie and Lauren at The Wheatsheaf in Chilton Foliat had recently been shortlisted for two awards by the Sustainable Restaurant Association so thought I’d ask them how they deal with what’s left over.

They said that recycling companies are strict about what they accept – which echoes Isonomia’s point – and also believe that some form of national standard for recycling regulations and a move towards insistence on fully degradeable packaging should be enforced. Information was the big problem.

Do they, for instance, feel that the packaging itself always has clear recycling information? “No,” Ollie said. “That’s the annoying part. We have to work it out, or research it. If in doubt, it goes into general waste.” He reckons that this only accounts for about 10% of what they dispose of but they’re always striving to reduce this. “Zero waste is the goal.” He accepts that it’s very hard to encourage this kind of attitude without either tighter regulation – which can be counter-productive and lead to almost gloating headlines like this one from the Daily Mail – or financial incentives.

He also admitted that when they took over the pub two years ago it was hard to get systems working but that everyone is “an ambassador of what we believe in and are happy to do it. It’s not just a Utopian fantasy – we have to earn a living from the pub and sustainability is a good economic model. You waste less and buy less. The problem is that we’re all creatures of habit and the habit is the landfill. It’s clear now that this can’t continue. I’m not a huge fan of centrally-imposed regulations and incentives as a rule but this is an issue the government has to get a grip on. We all have to do our bit as well. With all that in place, things will get better.”

If general waste causes recycling problems then so too does IT equipment. We don’t need to dispose of these as often as we do cans and bottles but, when we do, we’re even more uncertain how to go about it. I spoke to Simon Crisp the MD at Green Machine in Ramsbury which specialises in recycling and refurbishing IT equipment and returning as much as possible for use for schools, charities and those on low incomes.

“A couple of years ago I did some research,” Simon told me, “which suggested each household on average had about five pieces of IT equipment and that these were replaced at the rate of about one a year. This is just households – most businesses will have more and churn them more often.” Given the speed at which new technology is being introduced these figures are probably rising pretty fast.

More surprising was what happens to these redundant items. “About 90% of them are still in the home, on a shelf or under a table,” he said. I admitted we had several of these recycling problems-in-waiting.

Simon felt that “the main thing that worries people about recycling IT kit, is the data. Many people wouldn’t be comfortable with taking old devices to a public recycling centre. Our first job is to erase it completely. We’re about to get ISO9000 certification for this.” Green Machine has several government contracts for this task including with the Atomic Energy Authority; an organisation that, one would hope, takes data security very seriously.

Not all companies are so careful. “We sometimes get calls to deal with equipment which has been dumped in a skip and is rusted and waterlogged,” Simon observed. “Beyond a certain point there’s not a lot you can do with stuff in this condition. The irony is that in some cases it’s possible to extract the data, so this approach isn’t achieving anything at all for the firms involved.”

The two most challenging parts of a computer are the cases, which are very hard to recycle, and the screens, which contain a lot of chemicals. “Our aim is to get as many devices working again. Where we can’t, we take what we can for use in future rebuilds and recycle the rest through specialist companies.” So what’s the wastage with all this? “Pretty much zero,” Simon said with pride.

If you have more than 10 devices, Green Machine can organise a collection. If not, you can take it to them in Ramsbury (click here for opening times, which now include Saturdays). “We’ll zap the data, put nothing in the landfill and make the results available to good causes,” is Simon’s summary. “This removes three concerns for the previous owner.”

That seemed to provide a clear solution to the IT problem but I was still worried by my own uncertainty – shared by a dedicated recycler like The Wheatsheaf’s Ollie – about what can be done with domestic detritus. Online research led me to this 2016 report by Wrap. It’s not a list of dos and don’ts for householders but advice for the recycling industry about major areas of confusion, how these could be improved and what standards and guidelines should be issued to consumers. I’m unsure whether the refuse collectors in your area insist upon them, but it’s worth having a look at.

‘Paper’, for instance, includes under ‘yes please’ window envelopes but not used post-it notes, used paper towels or brown paper. ‘Card’ excludes greetings cards with glitter and food and drink cartons. ‘Metal packaging’ includes aerosols (without plastic caps and if empty) but not pet-food pouches and metal lids and caps on glass containers, like jam-jar lids, which should be recycled with the glass. ‘Glass’ doesn’t include broken drinking glasses. ‘Plastic bottles’ doesn’t include those made from black plastic. As for ‘mixed plastics’, these don’t include crisp packets, old toothpaste tubes, expanded polystyrene, plastic toys or old blister-packs for tablets. Several other items like bubble-wrap, light bulbs, old saucepans, batteries and juice cartons can be taken to recycling centres.

This complexity is, perhaps, the price we need to pay for the convenience of having things like juice cartons, light bulbs and paper towels in the first place. Unless we are prepared to forego all the items on the ‘no’ parts of the list above, the task of sorting what goes where is one we have to accept. Anyone in any doubt as to the results of not recycling items, particularly plastics, correctly might want to have a look at this video.

As a result of writing this, I’ve made a few resolutions. The first is to clear some space under my desk and get those old Macs over to Green Machine. The second is to put a hook to the utility-room wall for a bag for used light bulbs, three of which I’ve thrown into the general waste or the glass (due to my recycling doubts I’m not sure which) only today. The third is to contact our recyclers, Veolia, and our local council, West Berkshire, to see how their guidelines match up with those in in the Wrap report and how they are planning to improve information and the level of kerbside or local collections. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Main image: Plastic Pollution.org

Brian Quinn
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