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What can be recycled? The ultimate guide to recycling

Which plastics can go in the recycling bin? Is it OK to recycle wrapping paper? Our handy guide on what can and can’t be recycled will answer all your questions.

Updated

An egg carton, shampoo bottle, plastic bottle, drinks can, tinfoil and newspaper

Confused about what can be recycled? You’re not the only one. Research has found only eight per cent of Brits believe recycling labelling on products is clear*. 

Add to that the fact that councils across the country have different guidelines and you have a recipe for bewilderment.

Up to 60 per cent of the rubbish that ends up in the dustbin could be recycled**. So to help you recycle more, here’s our comprehensive guide on what can and can’t be recycled, plus where and how to do it.

Why is recycling important?

Recycling is one of the most important things you can do to live more sustainably. Here’s why...

It helps conserve our planet’s finite supply of natural resources:

  • Recycling paper and wood saves trees and forests. 

  • Recycling plastic means creating less new plastic.

  • Recycling metals means there's less need for risky, expensive and damaging mining and extraction of new metal ores.

  • Recycling glass reduces the need to use new raw materials like sand.

It protects ecosystems and wildlife

Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest or extract new raw materials from the Earth. And that lessens the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world.

Plus, if our plastic waste isn't put in the recycling, it can be blown or washed into rivers and seas, polluting coastlines and waterways.

It saves energy

Making products from recycled materials requires less energy than making them from new raw materials. For example, producing new aluminium from old products (including recycled cans and foil) uses 95 per cent less energy than making it from scratch

It cuts carbon emissions

Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it produces lower carbon emissions. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites.

If in doubt, remember the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle

Recycling is better than not recycling, but it still uses energy, water and other resources. The fact of the matter is that we all need to get into the habit of using less stuff in the first place. 

And the things we do use ought to be reused as much as possible before being recycled, to minimise waste. Find out more about the 3 Rs.

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Going green: what things can be recycled? 

Recycling isn’t just about what can go in your recycling bin at home – although that’s an important part of it, of course. This section has guidance on what can go in your recycling bin, but also what else you can do to recycle things you no longer need. From computers to clothes.

In the UK, what can and can’t be recycled relies a lot on guidance from your local council. It’s always a good idea to check their website for a reliable list of what they will take from your recycling bin.

And don’t forget, if you can’t recycle something through your household waste then you’ll have other options, which we’ll cover later on.

Only some plastics are recyclable

A bag containing a variety of plastic bottles

Plastic recycling can feel like a bit of a minefield. Most of us know that bottles can be recycled. But what about yoghurt pots? Or food wrappers? There’s lots to know about plastic recycling, which is why we’ve created a guide all about it. But here are a few key tips.

  • Look out for labelling which should give you a clue about whether or not the plastic is recyclable. Recycle Now’s guide to labels should help.
  • Bottles are widely recycled. That includes clear and coloured plastic drinks bottles, detergent bottles, milk bottles, shower and shampoo bottles and other kinds of household bottles. Just make sure that you remove the pumps from liquid soap bottles and dispose of these separately.
  • Most trays, tubs and jars can be recycled, including takeaway food trays, yoghurt pots, biscuit tubs and plant pots. 
  • The big exception is black plastic. This is problematic as it can’t be identified by the automatic sorting machines used at recycling plants.
  • Some boroughs do collect carrier bags, but many don’t. The good news is that you can recycle carrier bags at most supermarkets these days.
  • Food wrapping and clingfilm are tricky. There are different rules for recycling food packings of this sort. Generally speaking, bags and wrappers that resemble plastic bags can be recycled with your carrier bags at supermarkets. This includes bread and veg bags, freezer bags, and the plastic wrappers on toilet roll and paper towel packaging. Anything else probably can’t be recycled, including bubble wrap, clingfilm, and food and drink pouches.

Almost all cardboard is recyclable

A bag containing a variety of cardboard items, including cereal boxes and egg cartons

Cardboard – including egg boxes, cereal boxes, and old toilet roll or kitchen roll tubes – is a definite yes for recycling. 

Though don’t forget to think about how you could reuse them first. If you have kids, there’s a hell of a lot of entertainment to be had from cardboard. From a fort made with boxes through to binoculars made from toilet paper tubes, there are lots of fun and creative ideas online.

The big caveat – look out for anything with a plastic coating on the cardboard. Some single-use coffee cups fall into this camp as do some sandwich packs. Unfortunately, the plastic coating makes these items difficult to recycle. Their ultimate destination is usually the landfill.

Paper is a big yes for recycling

A bag containing a variety of paper and cardboard items

Paper, including magazines, newspapers, junk mail, directories, and plain wrapping paper, is also A-OK. Even plastic windows in envelopes can usually go in without you having to remove the windows first. The same goes for sticky tape on wrapping paper (as long as it’s not excessive). 

Talking of wrapping paper – it can only be recycled if it passes the scrunch test. Simple paper wrap that scrunches and stays scrunched can be recycled, but foil or glitter-decorated paper can’t and needs to go in the general waste.

For more on this, read our tips on recycling paper at home.

Glass bottles and jars are widely recycled

Glass bottles and jars

Most glass bottles and jars can be popped straight in the recycling bin (after a quick rinse). However, not everything made of glass is recyclable through your household recycling (although you may have other options – see later). 

Glass you can recycle at home

  • Bottles of any colour. For example wine bottles, beer bottles, or olive oil bottles.   
  • Jars – for sauces, jams, peanut butter, baby food (but think about whether you could reuse them first).
  • Non-food bottles, such as for perfume, aftershave, or face creams.   

Glass you can’t recycle at home

  • Glass cookware like Pyrex or microwave plates
  • Drinking glasses
  • Vases
  • Nail varnish bottles
  • Mirrors
  • Light bulbs and tubes   

If items like cookware, glasses, mirrors, or vases are still in good condition, then the best thing to do is pass them on or donate them to charity. But if the item isn’t reusable it will need to be disposed of in your household waste or at your local Household Waste Recycling Centre.

And don’t forget that broken glass needs special care: check our tips on the best way to dispose of broken glass safely.

Recycling metal, foil and tins

Empty tins, cans and tinfoil

Metal packaging such as cans, tins and foil is also widely recycled, though it’s best to check your council’s website for particulars. That said, as with glass, not everything that looks metallic is actually recyclable.

Metal you can put in your household recycling

  • Drink cans   
  • Food tins (put tin lids inside the tin)   
  • Biscuit or chocolate tins and their lids   
  • Aerosols (remove plastic caps and recycle these with plastics)   
  • Aluminium foil (usually) – scrunch foil together to form a ball
  • Aluminium foil trays
  • Aluminium tubes like those for tomato puree (again, remove plastic caps)   
 

Metal you can’t put in the household recycling

  • Laminated foil, such as cat food or coffee pouches that spring back when you try to scrunch them
  • Crisp packets and sweet wrappers
  • Metal containers for chemicals like white spirits, paints or engine oils
  • General kitchenware, like cutlery, pots and pans
  • Kettles, irons, pipes, white goods – although many of these can be recycled in other ways (see below)

Do you need to clean your household recycling?

We’ve alluded to this a couple of times. The short answer is, yes. Unfortunately, recycling plants aren’t there to wash out your jar of peanut butter or dispose of the remnants from your takeaway containers.

A container filled with food, drink or leftover shampoo could contaminate an entire batch of perfectly good recyclable items, meaning they all end up going to landfill. Which is a huge waste – literally.

Your recycling doesn’t have to be squeaky clean, but you should at least be scraping out any obvious remnants of the contents and giving the container a good rinse.

What else can be recycled? And how?

Just because you can’t put something in your recycling bin doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be recycled at all. Household Waste Recycling Centres up and down the country can accept a lot more than your bin can. So let’s take a look at what else you can recycle…

Clothes and textiles

From an old pair of unflattering jeans to a duvet cover you’ve fallen out of love with, you’re bound to have textiles you’ll be thinking of saying goodbye to. 

In the UK around 336,000 tonnes of our unwanted clothing gets thrown away every year. But this waste just isn’t necessary. Clothes and textiles in good condition can be donated to charity or even sold on eBay. 

And items that aren’t suitable to be passed on can be recycled and made into new items, such as padding for chairs and car seats, cleaning cloths and industrial blankets. Just take them to your nearest recycling bank. 

Computers and mobile phones

Donating your unwanted computer equipment to a charity is a great way to help others. For some charities, it’s important that the equipment is in good working order. But other groups, such as WEEECharity, have technicians who can repair them. Take a look at our tips on disposing of old laptops and computers for more ideas.

The same applies to mobile phones. It’s always best to see if you can find ways for them to be reused rather than recycled. There are lots of tips on how to pass on your phone on the Recycle Now website. Otherwise, phones can go to your local recycling centre in the same way as other small electrical items.

Recycling electrical equipment

Many electrical items can be recycled, including hairdryers, fridges, and washing machines, to name a few. Though (again) it’s worth remembering if they’re still in good working order, you should try to pass them on first.

According to Recycle Now, it's easy to check if an electrical item, toy or game is recyclable. Simply ask the following questions and if the answer is yes, to any of these, it is recyclable:

  • Does it have a plug?
  • Does it use batteries?
  • Does it need charging?
  • Does it have a picture of a crossed out wheelie bin on it?

To recycle electricals, your first port of call is electrical retailers. Under the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations, large retailers are required to accept electrical goods for recycling – regardless of whether or not you buy a new item.

In addition, if you’re buying a like-for-like replacement of an item (even online) the same WEEE regulations require all retailers to take away the old, unwanted item for free. 

To recycle or not to recycle: what to do with almost any item

From getting rid of unwanted furniture to donating clothes to charity, there’s so much that can be reused before it needs to be recycled, so make sure to explore your upcycling and donating options before chucking anything into the bin. 

*Source: YouGov

** Source: Recycling Guide

Originally published