The impact of dirty recycling

Annika Collins

October 11, 2022

Clean recycling

In the UK, recycling is now an established norm, and this relatively undemanding activity often makes us feel like we are playing our part in a world troubled by the climate crisis.

Are you a ‘wish-cycler’ – someone who just tosses your recyclable waste into the correct bin, not giving it a second thought on if or how it may be recycled into something shiny and new? Or do you see yourself as more of an expert when it comes to knowing want can and can’t be recycled?

Either way, many UK households now have their recyclable materials collected as part of a single stream recycling process (this simply means that our household recycling is collected from one bin, rather than being separated and loaded into separate containers), so why is it important to wash or rinse out packaging before disposing of it in your recycling bin?

What is the problem with dirty recyclables?

Materials destined for recycling can be easily contaminated by food residue left on or in packaging containers and by non-recyclable waste that is placed in recycling bins - items such as dirty nappies and clothing being the most common. Put simply, contamination happens when the wrong material is placed into the wrong collection system.

Many believe that dirty packaging isn’t an issue and assume that their recycling is always collected, sorted, cleansed, and processed at the material recovery facility (MRF). However, the reality is that high levels of contamination on recyclable packaging, such as food residue, can mean that entire loads of recycling is sent to landfill or incinerated; therefore, not recycled as you would hope.

Is washing out recycling a waste of energy and water?

If doing so means that tonnes more recycling is effectively reprocessed, I would say no. You don’t have to wash out the packaging as and when you’ve finished with it; you can save washing it out for when you do your washing up after a meal. Give it a quick rinse to make it recycling-ready. Some plastic containers and glass jars can be popped into a dishwasher, which helps to ensure you have a full load and makes washing it out more cost efficient. Many areas are now seeing a reduction in weekly bin collections; therefore, clean recyclable materials will help to keep bins fresher as they won’t get smelly and attract rats and flies in warmer weather.

In short, we will only help to alleviate the climate crisis if we make sure our recyclable waste is clean, so it can be reprocessed into something new. If we all take time to understand what happens to our recyclable packaging and make sure the correct items are disposed of in the correct way, we can help reduce your Council’s costs (landfill tax etc), which is ultimately funded by taxpayers.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog represent those of the author, Annika Collins, and are not those of recycle-more, Valpak Limited or any other organisation.