Why recycling is the 51st Shade of Grey

Now that it’s finally warming up outside, you can feel your mood lifting with the temperature. You go out into the garden to prepare for today’s barbeque and feeling unusually hot you decide to get yourself a cool, refreshing can of Coca-Cola. The condensation droplets trickle down the can, the sun is shining, life is beautiful! You finish your drink, throw it in the recycling bin, and BANG! Your curious mind has a new question just itching to be answered!

Where does your recycling waste actually go??? Do we know the truth about what happens to our waste? Everything you own will one day become the property of the waste industry, a £250bn global enterpriseSo, let’s figure out what happens after you throw your waste into the recycling bin.

The first question to ask is: How much waste does the UK produce? In 2016 the UK generated 222.9 million tonnes of waste, up 4% from 2014.


England was responsible for 85% of the total. Construction and demolition generate the most – about 136 million tonnes a year. Mineral waste accounts for 36% of the total and includes anything left over from mining or quarrying that can't be used again. These are some impressive numbers but since it seems we produce more waste than we could ever possibly recycle, the second question would be: How much gets recycled? How much of the UK's rubbish is sent abroad today?

Roughly two-thirds of plastic waste in the UK is sent overseas to be recycled – in part to reduce costs. A BBC analysis suggests the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging to other countries between January and October 2018.

It all starts with materials recovery facilities (MRFs) which sort the waste into its constituent parts. From there, the materials embark upon a roller-coaster ride involving buyers and sellers. Some of this happens in the UK but much of it – about half of all paper and cardboard and two-thirds of plastics – will be loaded onto container ships to be sent to Europe or Asia for recycling.

For some time, China imported most of the world's plastic waste. Or at least that’s how it worked until the first day of 2018 when China, the world’s largest market for recycled waste, essentially blocked access. Under its National Sword policy, China banned 24 types of waste from entering the country arguing that what was coming into the country was too contaminated. As a result, the waste is now often burned or abandoned, eventually finding its way into rivers and oceans.

One of the UK’s largest waste companies, Biffa, was found guilty of attempting to ship used nappies, sanitary towels and clothing to China in consignments marked as waste paper, says Oliver Franklin-Wallis in The Guardian. It seems like a lot of “creative” ideas and “solutions” are being applied in the attempts to get rid of our waste because, subconsciously, we want our waste to be out of sight rather than having to deal with it. After all, not many of us ask ourselves what happens after we’ve recycled our waste.

Contamination is a huge problem which is why most developed countries have colour-coded bins to try to keep the end product as pure as possible. In the UK, Recycle Now lists 28 different recycling symbols that can appear on packaging. There is the Mobius loop (three twisted arrows) which indicates a product can technically be recycled and sometimes this recycling symbol contains a number between one and seven to indicate which plastic resin the object was made from. There is the green dot (two green arrows embracing) which indicates that the producer has contributed to a European recycling scheme with some labels stating “Widely Recycled” (acceptable by 75% of local councils) and “Check Local Recycling” (i.e., find the nearest recycling centres), a scheme operated by between 20% and 75% of councils).

Let's have a look at exactly what happens to some of the most common recyclable materials: What Happens to Cardboard? OCC (cardboard) is sent to facilities in Barking in the UK and the Netherlands. The fibre lengths in cardboard are longer so the material is stronger and can be recycled more times than paper or newspaper: Bales of cardboard are loaded onto an articulated lorry at the MRF in Smugglers Way in Wandsworth and taken to the facility at Basildon. The bales are off-loaded and visually inspected for high levels of contaminants. The material is then shredded, cleaned and pulped with a whisk-like machine extracting any remaining contaminants. The pulp is dried and rolled to produce sheets of cardboard which are then used to make new packaging.

What happens to aluminium Cans?

Aluminium cans are taken directly to an aluminium recycling plant in Germany. Bales of aluminium cans are loaded onto an articulated lorry at the MRF in Smugglers Way and taken to the facility in Germany. The bales are off-loaded and inspected for contaminants. The bales are then loaded into a furnace and smelted into sheets of aluminium The sheets are then made into new cans, car parts or anything else that can be made from aluminium.

What happens to Mixed Plastics (Pots, Tubs and trays?)

Mixed plastics are processed in the Netherlands. Bales are loaded onto an articulated lorry at the MRF in Smugglers Way and taken to the facility. The mixed plastics are shredded and placed into a sink tank to separate the plastics into different grades (i.e., PP, PS, PET, HDPE LDPE). These are then washed and dried before being bagged up and sent to the processing facility. At the processing facility, the shredded flakes are pelletised, mixed with virgin material (depending on the specification requirement or what it will be used for) and moulded into new products such as wheeled bins and storage containers. Depending on the market, the pellets can also be sold to other plastic manufacturers around Europe. Any contaminants are sent to Energy from Waste Facilities in the UK.

What Happens to Mixed Paper?

Paper material is sent to paper mills based in Germany and the Netherlands. Bales of mixed paper are loaded onto an articulated lorry at the MRF in Smugglers Way and taken to one of the facilities by road. The bales are off-loaded and visually inspected for high levels of contaminants. The bales will be re-sorted into separate grades of paper (i.e., white, brown, card, etc.) and then either processed at the mill or sold to other local European mills. The material for processing will be separated into different grades and then shredded, cleaned and pulped with a whisk-like machine that extracts any remaining contaminants. The pulp is then dried and rolled to make sheets of paper which are then used to make new packaging and various paper products such as printing paper, tissue paper, cereal packets, packaging and card. Any contaminants will either be recycled (in the case of metals and baling wire) and the remainder sent to Energy from Waste

To summarize, just throwing something in the recycling bin is simply not good enough. It doesn’t make it recyclable by default and it might still end up being dumped or burned in the landfill. Contamination is a huge factor in your waste and, in turn, our planet’s future.

Companies such as The Green Alchemist help businesses to tackle this issue by not only preparing recyclable materials so that they are sorted and void of any contamination but also by teaching your staff how to be more eco-friendly.

Now that you know the whole truth, however contradictory and edgy that is at some level, you come to understand that, like everything else in this world, it is not black and white. There will always be grey areas and it’s up to each of us to bring some light into that darkness.

There is light at the end of the grey tunnel.

Now that your questions are answered and issues resolved, go get your food and enjoy your barbeque!

By Svetlana Lungu