Recycling without practicality is pointless

There is no doubt that environmental concerns, particularly those focused on global warming, have hijacked the global spotlight in the last 2 years. Movements such as the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and programmes such as David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ have catapulted the importance of cutting carbon emissions into our daily lives.

In light of this, the vast majority of us are determined to do our best for future generations.  This includes reducing the volume of waste we produce, and the amount that goes into landfill sites. The way lots of us do this is by recycling. It’s something we can all do in our homes and places of work, and, let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to do. However, it often isn’t properly understood. More and more people are asking why there are different rules for different waste items and why we can’t just recycle everything?

The answer to this is far from straightforward.

Commerciality, practicality and collectability

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. If we did, everyone would recycle everything and everything we set aside for recycling would be effectively recycled. In reality, the world doesn’t work like that.

For the concept of recycling to work, the item must not only be technically recyclable, it must also be commercially, practically and effectively recyclable.

In layman’s terms, this essentially means that if there isn’t a workable and profitable business case for recycling something, it won’t get recycled.

Although this might sound harsh, the waste industry exists because there is a need for services, process and equipment to clear our streets of waste and ensure this waste is disposed of in a way that it causes minimal damage to our health and environment. This costs money - machinery, manpower and transport are just a few of the cost that come into play to ensure the infrastructure is in place to allow it to happen. Businesses need to employ people, pay them, run organisations and make a profit. The same goes for recycling. As much as we would like to do this out of the ‘goodness of our hearts’ plants need to be maintained, fuel needs to be purchased and mouths need to be fed.

Theory vs practice

With this in mind, commerciality and practicality has a huge impact on which items can be technically recycled ‘in theory’, and which items are actually recyclable ‘in practice’. Essentially, nearly all items of waste can be technically recycled but in many instances it isn’t viable to do so. This could be for several reasons. It maybe that the volumes of that particular material are too low or too contaminated, or that there is no commercial market for them, or they may be just too difficult to collect.


Infrastructure is key. Where there is a defined market, collection strategy and end destination that returns a commercially viable result, then that material should be highlighted as recyclable. In scenarios where this isn’t possible, it should be communicated as such. In short, this comes down to picking and choosing where we can have most impact and focusing resource and communication in this area.

It is always better to be able to process one waste stream well than several badly.

For example, items such as plastic straws are technically recyclable however, their size and shape means that they are difficult to segregate and collect – any resource ploughed into an effort to do so would outweigh the benefit. Similarly, items spoilt by food, liquid or oils are very low-quality meaning there is little commercial return, what’s more they could contaminate those items that are prime recyclate.

Items such as plastic bottles and cardboard boxes are not only easy to segregate and collect, there is also a strong secondary market, making them a commercially viable recycling stream.

Focus on the low hanging fruit

Ultimately, there is no magic answer. We need to focus on where we can make the most impact. If everyone spent their time segregating every item of waste, it simply wouldn’t work.  The infrastructure wouldn’t be in place to deal with it and resource which could have focused on the most practically recyclable items would be diverted into less effective endevours. Instead, we should focus on the areas in which we can make a real difference: food recycling, clear & white plastic, card, wood, WEEE and coffee cups are all items that are commercially and practically recyclable and will help reduce the amount of waste that’s damaging our environment.

Although it might not feel as if we are doing the right thing putting less practically recyclable items, such as plastic straws and greasy pizza boxes, into the general waste, this is definitely the right thing to do. Not only will these items still be put to good use as RDF, the practically recyclable items will be kept separate and uncontaminated, allowing the process to work as efficiently as possible.

For more information on how your business can segregate its waste effectively to maximise recycling rates, contact us.


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