Can I recycle this?
Do you ever find yourself holding an item, wondering whether it can be recycled or not? Do you get confused by the different symbols and rules for recycling? We know the feeling! Recycling can be confusing with all the different products and rules to follow. That's why we created this practical guide to help you recycle right - whether you're a recycling novice or a seasoned pro.
We'll cover the basics of which materials can and cannot be recycled, the secret behind why some items are recycled in some places and not others, as well as tips and tricks for recycling more effectively. So without further ado, let's dive in.
Why Recycling Matters
Recycling helps to reduce waste, conserve natural resources, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. It also creates jobs in the recycling industry and reduces the amount of trash that ends up in landfills and oceans. Did you know you could save 904 kg of CO2 each year by recycling correctly? That's equivalent to eating the average weight of a person in cheeseburgers!
What do Recycling Symbols Mean?
Understanding recycling symbols is the key to determining whether an item is recyclable or not. Here are some of the most common symbols you'll encounter:
- Mobius Loop: This is the universal recycling symbol, which indicates that a product is recyclable. If you see a percentage in the centre of the triangle, it means that the product is made from recycled material.
- Resin Identification Codes (RICs): These numbers (1-7) are found on plastic products and indicate the type of plastic used. However, not all types of plastic are recyclable, and recycling rules vary by region.
- Corrugated Recycles: This symbol indicates that a product is made from recyclable cardboard.
- Compostable Seedling: This symbol is found on products that are industrially compostable. However, not all regions accept these items, so it's essential to check your local guidelines.
- OK Compost & OK Compost Home: These symbols indicate that a product is compostable, either at an industrial facility or at home. However, it's important to follow your local guidelines to ensure that you're disposing of these items correctly.
- Widely Recycled: This symbol (UK only) indicates that a product is recycled in at least 75% of local regions. However, it may come with additional instructions, so be sure to read them carefully.
- Aluminium: The word "alu" inside a circle of two curved arrows indicates that a product is made of recyclable aluminium.
- Waste Electricals: This symbol indicates that an item should not be thrown into regular household trash but instead taken into a local recycling centre.
It's important to note that there are also a few "false friends" you might want to watch out for. These are logos that might look a lot like recycling symbols and are often placed next to recycling symbols, but don't actually mean anything for recyclability:
- Green Dot: Often mistaken as a recycling symbol, the green dot means the manufacturer has financially contributed to recycling programs. But it doesn't necessarily mean the product is recyclable.
- FSC Logo: The FSC logo, a checkmark and tree over the letters' FSC', only indicates that any wood used in the packaging was harvested from well-managed forests. It does not indicate recyclability.
Understand Local Recycling Guidelines
Recycling rules vary by region, so it's essential to check your local guidelines to avoid wishcycling. Wishcycling is when you throw something into the recycling bin, hoping it's recyclable, but it's not actually accepted in your area. This can lead to contamination and make recycling more expensive and less efficient.
This may be a well-intentioned mistake but can result in the entire recyclable bin contents being rejected and disposed of in landfill. The exact opposite of what we're trying to achieve.
To avoid wishcycling and feel confident about sorting waste like a pro, remember to follow your local guidelines! You can visit your recycling provider's website or check out the UK's #1 Free Recycling app — the Scrapp mobile app automatically updates the guidance based on your location to show you whether or not something is recyclable in your area. That way, you can be sure you're doing your part to help, without the risk of undoing all of your hard work!
Commonly Recyclable Materials
While specific rules may vary, some materials are commonly accepted for recycling:
- Paper: Newspapers, magazines, office paper, and cardboard are usually recyclable, as long as they're clean, dry and uncoated.
- Metal: Aluminium cans, steel cans, and tin cans are typically recyclable. To give them the best chance of being recycled, replace any lids or pull-off tabs back inside your cans and tins, then (only if safe to do so) gently squeeze the top closed.
- Glass: Glass bottles and jars can be recycled, but remember to check for any restrictions on colours or types. Also make sure that your region accepts glass for recycling. While glass can be recycled almost infinitely, not every recycling program accepts glass. Roughly 19% of all United States recycling programs don't accept glass for recycling.
- Plastic: PET (1) and HDPE (2) plastics are widely accepted. Other plastics, like PVC (3) and polystyrene (6), might be harder to recycle, depending on your location.
- TetraPak cartons: If your carton comes with the TetraPak logo, it can be recycled. Note that not every recycling program accepts TetraPaks, and that you should always check your local recycling guidelines first.
Common Culprits: Items to Think Twice About
Some items can be tricky when it comes to recycling. The following items are not usually recyclable, but often wind up in recycling bins. Here are a few that are common causes of confusion:
- Pizza boxes: Only clean, grease-free sections of pizza boxes can be recycled. Tear off the oily parts and toss the rest in the recycling bin.
- Coated cardboard: When cardboard containers are made to hold food or liquid (like paper cups and cardboard take-out boxes), a thin, plastic coating must be applied to the interior to keep liquid from leaking. That plastic coating usually makes these cardboard containers unrecyclable. However, you should check your local recycling guidelines.
- Plastic bags: Many recycling programs don't accept plastic bags, but some grocery stores have dedicated bins for recycling them. (Placing plastic bags into your regular recycling when your program does not accept plastic bags can be harmful, because these loose plastic bags can jam up recycling machinery.)
- Multi-material items: Since different materials are recycled through different processes, recycling waste needs to be sorted before recycling. Items made of different materials are usually not recyclable unless you can take them apart at home. TetraPak cartons are an exception to this rule because they are designed to be recyclable.
- Unrinsed bottles and other containers: While plastic bottles are usually recyclable, plastic bottles with liquid still inside can make recycling more difficult. Make sure to thoroughly empty out and rinse all containers before putting them in your recycling bin.
- Styrofoam: Anything made out of styrofoam is not recyclable and should go in the trash.
- Pyrex and frosted glass: Most types of glass are recyclable, however borosilicate glass, the type of glass that makes up Pyrex ovenware or other oven-safe glass containers, is not recyclable. Also, bear in mind that frosted glass is not recyclable.
- Electronics: E-waste should be taken to designated recycling facilities, not placed in your regular recycling bin.
When in Doubt, Don't Guess. Find Out!
Our recycling app uses the most up-to-date information from local governments and recycling providers across the US and UK to help you make the right recycling decisions. Simply scan a product's barcode using the Scrapp app, and let it tell you exactly how to recycle it. You can find out more right here.
Whatever you choose, it's better to take a moment to check than to risk wasting your (and others') best efforts by contaminating your recycling bin. So, be sure to grab our FREE app and bookmark this ultimate guide, so the next time you find yourself wondering, you'll have the answer!
With a bit of knowledge and a few extra seconds of effort, we can all do our part to protect the environment and create a more sustainable future for all. Happy recycling!
Want a helping hand?
If you're a businesses or brand trying to get better at recycling, we can help with that too. Scrapp works directly with brands and retailers to help you understand just how recyclable your packaging is, by scoring your brand’s packaging across all areas you service. And if you’re looking to up your sustainability game, we also offer bespoke consulting services, to find ways to help you make your packaging more sustainable. Book a quick call with one of our packaging consultants.