Where Does My Recycling Go and Does It Actually Get Recycled?
Updated: Aug 14
We visited Veolia’s Southwark Recycling Centre, an establishment committed to carbon reduction, with only 1% of its waste going to the landfill!
Plastic. It's in everything these days, even our bodies. We all know that we need to use less and recycle more, but to make serious changes to the size of our ecological footprints, we need to first understand what happens to our waste after we throw it in the bin, and why recycling properly is essential.
Have you ever wondered what happens after you throw your empty oat milk bottle in the recycling bin? Big shocker, it doesn’t magically get taken away never to be seen again! It actually goes on a long journey to its next phase of life. Let’s dive deep into the ins and outs of waste management, and more specifically, the UK’s recycling system through the eyes of waste management giant Veolia in London.
What Is Recycling?
Recycling is a waste disposal technology that is a vital component of modern waste reduction. It is the transformation of our rubbish into new materials or items, this notion includes the recovery of energy from rubbish. Recycling has so many advantages for our environment including:
Reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills
Natural resource conservation (such as timber, water, and minerals)
Increases economic security
Prevents pollution (reduces the need to collect new materials)
There can be drawbacks to how efficient the process can be, including large-scale human error and old technology preventing some items from being recycled.
The Waste Management Strategy
Globally, less than 20% of all of our waste is recycled. Every year, humans produce more than 2 billion tonnes of waste, and nearly 300 million tonnes of this waste is plastic (with half of it being single-use). Much of this waste ends up in landfills or our oceans too. The waste that reaches our oceans also kills sea life, due to the toxins in the plastic that enter the food chain or simply trap the animal. For humans, this means that our health can also be drastically impacted when plastic-filled sealife are consumed.
We spoke with the Director of Organics and Technology at Veolia Tim Duret to get a better understanding of how important recycling really is. Tim looks after the improvement of sorting and recycling for Veolia, a facility that collects the waste of 68 million residents living in the UK.
Tim mentioned, “We are extracting the recyclable materials, the plastic, the glass, the metal, the fibre, it’s about 120,000 tonnes per year, making it one of the biggest in the UK.”
Recycling alone can support in alleviating the challenges caused by massive amounts of rubbish dumped in landfills. Landfills are one of the greatest sources of methane gas emissions, a powerful greenhouse gas that traps heat into our atmosphere, which accelerates climate change.
What is ‘Wishcycling’?
Unfortunately, landfills and plastic pollution are not the only problem within our waste management systems. Wishcycling, putting things into the recycling bin when you are unsure of what actually can/cannot be put there, is another contributing factor to our waste problem. Time to let you in on a little secret, wishcycling puts a huge strain on our recycling centres and those that work there! So essentially, the more aware we are, the more eco-friendly and efficient we can be.
If you live in the UK, Recycle Now is a great resource to see where to recycle specific things near you.
A major step in the recycling process is rubbish separation, which requires both human and machine work. While a shocking 55% of UK homes have been found to dump recyclable goods in their regular waste bins, it doesn’t mean that dumping ‘just anything’ into recycling improves this issue.
Tim has found that, “People tend to put things in the recycling bin that should not be there, such as plastic toys and electronic devices,” and although this can be done with good intentions, some plastics and items cannot be recycled at these facilities. This is because every recycling facility is different, with different regulations.
Tim mentions that, “One of the reasons for these [difference in recycling methods] is because [the facility] was built over 10 years ago…we might build a new one in the next few years, and the technology even then will be different.”
An exciting update Tim mentioned was that by 2023-2024 there will be a new governmental waste management strategy, introducing one clearer waste management scheme where all local UK authorities will collect the same waste. Also, labels will be standardised (meaning easier instructions for you!). Other beneficial advancements are currently being made in the recycling sector including plastic taxes and other new technologies.
We are excited to see these huge promises towards improvements of our waste systems come to fruition. These, alongside the new strategies, will hopefully reduce the amount of wishcycling and rubbish disposal errors made by the public, and in turn, improve our environmental footprints.
Tim’s Top Tips
Even though new advancements are exciting, doing our part is just as important and necessary in the process towards a greener future as the government rolling out new regulations. Here are some tips for being the greenest we can be in our efforts to support the recycling industry:
1. Follow the guidance given or find out for yourself!
Council websites are a great way to check what can and can’t be recycled, as well as the Recycle Now website, or even just a quick Google search. It’s important to check these before you accidentally take part in wishcycling or throw something away.
2. Seek out sustainable packaging
As a consumer, what you choose to buy or not carries with it immense power! Packaging, although trendy, often causes recycling issues if not disposed of properly, or if made of too many mixed materials.
Take a look at the back of the packaging to see whether it can or cannot be recycled, and opt for products and brands that use maybe 100% recycled materials, are a certified B-Corp, offer an “empties” send-back program, or have products that are simply packaged in cardboard boxes, glass jars or aluminium bottles. Here are some great examples of companies taking the first step, and here’s how you can see which companies are certified B-Corporations.
3. Cut down on your overall waste!
Check out our tips for adopting a more zero-waste or low-waste lifestyle, no matter where you live!
We should all try to be mindful that once we are done using something, it goes on its own journey afterwards and becomes someone else's responsibility. So remember, you have the power to help the recycling industry by both recycling properly, and cutting down on your waste in general.
We hope you have been able to take some tips from this video and add to your understanding of recycling. If you want to find out more about eco-living, then make sure you subscribe to the Going Green YouTube channel, and follow us on Instagram @goinggreenmedia.