Dos and Don’ts of recycling

You may be a keen recycler but are you as green as you think?

For example, do you wash out yogurt pots or do you believe that dirty items will be washed as part of the recycling process?  Do you think grease on cardboard takeaway containers doesn’t count?

Recycling can be a subject that causes arguments in households, with everybody thinking they know the right rules.

Yet people who recycle wrongly cause tonnes of recyclable items to be rejected and incinerated, costing councils £48m a year.  

The recycling industry has a name for people who have the right motivation but the wrong methods – ‘wishcyclers’.

Wishcyclers feel so guilty about waste that if in doubt they put items in the recycling and hope for the best. They rarely seek advice or keep up with changes in policy so they’re unaware when they get it wrong.  

The most common contaminant is food in unwashed containers and crusts left in pizza boxes. At recycling centres loads are sorted and checked for sources of contamination. Even small amounts of leftover food (including grease on takeaway containers) and liquid make other items in the collected recycling dirty and can damage or clog the sorting machinery.

According to a report in The Sunday Times,  a used teabag in a bag of paper would count as low contamination and depending on the facility would get removed by hand or machine, but if the contamination is high – lots of food waste , wet paper, used nappies – then the whole bag and possibly other bags in the same lorry will be incinerated.  

The costs are disastrous for local councils – not only do they bear the cost of incinerating the waste but they are also losing out on money they could have earned from selling the recyclable materials. 

Do the right thing – separate recycling bins in a UK service station

In 2019/20, 525,000 tonnes of household recycling collected by councils was rejected at the point of sorting, according to the Local Government Association.  Each tonne from a household bin that cannot be recycled costs an extra £93 to incinerate, amounting to £48m a year.

Foods or liquids can contaminate other recyclables. If bottles contain liquid they may be deemed too heavy by the automatic sorting process and rejected.

Other items mistakenly put in recycling bins include clingfilm, plastic wrapping, nappies, wet wipes,  used tissues, kitchen towel and foil.  

The best kind of street heart

Our main photo shows a wonderful idea that we came across on the streets of Simantra in Chalkidiki, Greece, to inspire residents to recycle plastic bottle lids.  

The heart-shaped containers accept donated lids, which are amassed to raise funds to buy wheelchairs for people who can’t afford them. It’s a fantastic practical idea that looks good too, and you can just imagine that children love popping their lids into the container.   

The local council started collecting the lids years ago, but people used to save them at home in bags until someone had the brainwave of the heart-shaped containers out on the streets. This obviously makes it easier for collection as well as motivation.  


It’s in all our interests to recycle better. Check out these Dos and Don’ts of Recycling:


  • Check out the Recycle Now website by typing in your postcode and tracking what can and can’t be recycled locally –
  • Ask staff at your local recycling centre for information if you’re still not sure what can go where – don’t guess.  Currently there are regional variations in what can be accepted for recycling.   
  • Rinse out plastic bottles, squash them and put the lids back on – this means they take up less space in bins, in the lorry and at the recycling centre.
  • Add envelopes with plastic windows – the windows aren’t recyclable but the sorting system at the recycling centre can extract them.
  • Rinse out tins to get rid of food residue – use your washing up water to do this.
  • Check out what recycling options supermarkets offer – large stores are keen to offer recycling services because that’s what their customers want. It makes sense because people will go to a certain supermarket because of this.  Our local Tesco is a magnet for recyclers, with containers collecting soft plastics and other items.

Soft plastics recycling at Tesco

  • If you have more plastic bags than you can possibly reuse, recycle them at supermarket drop-offs.
  • Use refills where you can. Many companies offer refill options for appropriate products, such as Abel and Cole’s Club Zero refillable options. You return the original container and store the produce at home in a container of your own.  They also collect hard-to-recycle plastics and transform them into sustainable building materials.
  • Repurpose containers – the plastic containers that your shop-bought fruit or veg comes in can be used for planting seedlings in.  
  • Use charity shops – as a donor and customer. Charity shops keep 339,000 tonnes of textiles a year out of landfill. Buying second-hand clothes also encourages you to be creative and customise clothes in a way you might not if you’ve spent more. Eco-influencer Nancy Birtwhistle has a recipe for odour neutraliser for second-hand clothes and furniture. And it’s not just clothes that are second-hand bargains. You can also make some money if you’re savvy; I heard that a customer who bought pottery items from my local Oxfam resold them for £1,000.
  • Check out and These are brilliant way of donating – and finding – a huge variety of things based on the philosophy that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.  They are non-profit, free organisations that link you with people in your area who need things or want to get rid of them, keeping good stuff out of landfill.
  • Check out vintage furniture – Buying second-hand furniture is not only the planet-friendly choice but the stylish one too these days as more and more people appreciate the character and workmanship in vintage furniture. Pieces from the 60s and 70s are currently in demand as people scour eBay for items such as smoked-glass tables or boucle chairs that they remember from their childhood. If trawling round antiques markets and reclamation yards isn’t for you, check out websites such as,, or the Narchie shopping app.
  • Upcycle furniture with a lick of paint. If you use chalk paint you don’t need to sand it down first. We love Lakeland paints ( which are organic and chemical free and, we can confirm, odourless. There are also recipes online if you want to try making your own.
  • Transform pallets into planters, garden furniture, bug hotels and seed trays. You can ask at a local builders’ merchants or ask permission to take them if someone is throwing them out in a skip.
  • Check notices at your recycling centre – our local bottle banks changed recently, with glass of all colours now accepted in each container rather than having to be separated out.  When I asked staff at the site after reading a notice about this, I was told that new machinery can separate out the different colours.
  • Learn more locally –with the Horizon app ( By scanning barcodes you can  learn how to recycle packaging in your area.   
  • Look up The Recycled Candle Company, which makes all its hand-made candles from scrap wax, saving more than 40 tonnes of wax from landfill every year. They extract the wax from the containers so the containers can be recycled. They have collection points for consumers to drop off used candles in churches, libraries and gift shops.


  • Don’t use charity shops as dumping grounds for your rubbish that you can’t be bothered to sort through yourself.  Anything donated should be clean, undamaged and in good condition. Poor quality leftover clothes are commonly exported overseas and the local textile economies are swamped by European cast-offs. Artisan traders buy bags of castoffs hoping to repair and upcycle items for resale, but increasingly poor quality means it’s harder and harder for them to make a profit. So the clothes end up as waste and are dumped or washed out to sea. Remember the first rule of the ‘buyerarchy’ is Refuse – as in refuse to keep consuming.
  • Don’t throw away pots and tubs with the film still on, it can’t be recycled.
  • Don’t try to recycle pyrex dishes and drinking glasses – they are chemically heat treated to stop them melting at the same temperature as other glass.
  • Don’t put corks in recycling without checking first. They can be recycled at some recycling points – check at You can home compost them or use as mulch on plants, chopped into small pieces. Alternatively send them to cork recycling schemes such as Recorked UK, who resell them and donate a percentage of profits to charities –
  • Don’t rely on clingfilm – instead use reusable, washable beeswax food wraps.
  • Don’t try to recycle containers from scented candles if they still contain some wax – scrape off the residual wax.  

On the subject of candles, try to buy them from renewable sources, such as soy-based or beeswax candles. Cheaper candles are made from paraffin wax, which is derived from petroleum by-products. Paraffin burns quickly as it has a higher melt point whereas a high-quality wax burns more slowly.


Why is recycling harder than it should be?

This is a complaint commonly heard across the UK, except perhaps in Wales, which has one of the best recycling rates in the world – currently nearly 66 per cent, with plans to bump this up to 70 per cent by next year. 

But across the rest of the UK, recycling rates have plateaued at around 43 per cent in recent years.

A report to the House of Commons recently (December 2023) noted that there had been no improvement in recycling since 2011.    

Although 90 per cent of households in the UK routinely recycle, most people don’t find it easy. Confusion around council rules doesn’t help, with at least 39 different bin regimes running across 391 different local authorities.

 This postcode lottery is set to change within the next two years under the government’s Simpler Recycling plans. From the end of March 2026 all councils in England will be required to recycle the same materials and have a standard of three containers (bins, boxes or bags) – for general refuse (residual), mixed dry recycling and food waste.  

 There is now a list of items which all councils will recycle, including aluminium foil and certain types of plastic packaging. Similar measures will apply to businesses, hospitals, schools and universities, so people will be doing the same thing at home, work and school and will no longer need to check what their council will accept for recycling. The rules could also apply to places of worship, charity shops, prisons and hostels.

A game-changer in recycling will be the new rules governing extended producer responsibility (EPR), which mean producers of packaging will have to label their products to make it easier for people to know what can and can’t be recycled. They will also become responsible for the cost of recycling the packaging. To get ready for this, manufacturers of products such as Pringles, ketchup and toothpaste are upgrading production lines so that packaging will be fully recyclable.

It’s hoped that these initiatives will increase recycling rates to between 52-60 per cent by 2035.

Ready or not?

These are big changes, but will councils be ready?  The report mentioned above stated that uncertainty is stopping businesses and local authorities from preparing for the changes. As a result, there is a risk that there will be insufficient facilities to deal with increased volumes of recycling, meaning more plastic could be sent to landfill than before.

 Without the certainty of a long-term infrastructure plan, private sector companies are reluctant to invest in new recycling facilities. 

One such company, Veolia – the French international waste giant – said this month that it wanted to spend more in the UK to divert waste for reuse but was put off by lack of clarity on policy.

Countries with the best recycling rates understand the importance of educating the public. Germany has achieved the best rates in the world – almost 69 per cent – thanks to information campaigns and simplified labels on packaging.   

The best 16 councils for recycling in the UK are all in Wales. Pembrokeshire is top, with 73 per cent of household waste recycled. The Welsh school curriculum includes lessons on how food waste is converted into energy and schools organise trips to anaerobic digestion plants.

Dividing recycling into separate bins reduces contamination, such as cardboard getting wet from washed glass jars. Because uncontaminated waste is easier to recycle into higher-quality materials, councils get more money as a result. If people don’t know how to add items correctly to the right bins, the collected material is often heavily contaminated.

Recycling for profit

Part of the success in Wales is down to the public being well informed about the cost of contamination and the fact that their council can make money from the waste collected. Because every household has the same bins and separates the same materials, recycling is far less contaminated, which attracts companies that can recycle it for profit. Understanding this makes people far more likely to take care not to contaminate waste materials.

Insight into the cost came last year when Maidstone Borough Council in Kent launched a scheme to clarify what can and can’t be recycled by putting hangers on bins. This came after a two-month period in which contamination of recycling loads had cost taxpayers £25,000. Extra costs are incurred when contaminated loads are refused by the recycling centre.

  If refuse collectors see that the wrong materials have been put into recycling bins they will not empty them – they place a sticker on the bin to say it is contaminated but don’t have time to let householders know what it is that has contaminated each individual bin.  

Did you know:

  • The council with the most waste collections in the country is Bristol with 13. It’s the only big English city to achieve above average recycling rates, with 46 per cent.
  •  According to WRAP (Waste and Action Resources Programme) more than half of the population miss opportunities to recycle common items.
  • People under 35 dispose of more items incorrectly than older people. Councils with a higher median age have better recycling rates.
  • The age group that recycles the most is 55 – 64-year-olds, who say they always recycle to the best of their ability.
  • The most rural areas recycle almost 10 per cent more than urban areas on average.

Golden rules for having a clear-out

Returning from holiday can be hard – and not for the obvious reasons.

 Last year I was fed up when we came back from the Lake District, and it wasn’t just the fact that I could no longer see Lake Windermere from the bedroom window. It was also because I missed the neat tidy air of the holiday cottage we’d stayed in. It was so serene and uncluttered. If I put a book down on the coffee table, I would still be able to find it the next day because it wouldn’t have been submerged under papers, junk mail and post-it notes.

Simplicity and peace reigned in that little cottage. I felt as though a loudspeaker had been turned off in my head and I could hear properly for the first time. And what I could hear was the voice of Marie Kondo (author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying) saying, ‘Does all that stuff in your house really spark joy?’

Because if it doesn’t, you’re meant to allow it to pass on to spark joy in someone else’s. A great recycling manifesto.

So that’s why I launched the very first Awesome August Clear-Out in our house (a designated annual event). I chose August because I’d just come back from holiday but of course it can be any time. Any school holiday is good if you have children at home.

Like many people we worked from home during the pandemic lockdowns and despite officially going back to the office many moons ago, not everything seems to have made it back there. In many ways the house is still a home-office hybrid. Remember those days when every surface had to multitask? You’d wonder why the hairdryer wasn’t working only to realise you’d picked up the stapler instead. And vice versa. Our house hadn’t fully recovered from that and it needed to because I wanted that holiday cottage vibe. I wanted to open a cupboard and immediately find what I was looking for. I’ll never be the mad-clean type who whisks away an innocent person’s half-drunk cup of tea before they’ve finished, but I do crave clear surfaces and curated shelving. If you’re there already, I salute you. Move along, people, there’s nothing for you to see here.  

For the rest of you, here’s why you too could benefit from an Awesome Clear-Out.

  • Coming back from holiday usually means you’re motivated by how pleasant it was to live a simpler life for a week or two. This was because you weren’t surrounded by stuff. We can’t all decide to renovate our homes, but we can make it easier to find things.  
  • The summer is a good time if you are among the thousands who have a long holiday. School staff, pupils, students – you know who you are. The mild weather means you can dump all your stuff outside to sort through it all, like they do in the TV decluttering shows.
  •  One message that comes through loud and clear from the TV shows is that many parents can’t let go of their children’s childhoods. Guilty as charged. But I’ve now reduced the piles of memorabilia to one box per child. Parents, stop the insanity. I hate to be harsh, but – it’s gone. Children are often fine with moving on. It’s you who’ll be clinging to a tatty rag, wailing, ‘But we can’t let go of Goosey!’
  • Will you really read those books again? During the first Clear-Out I asked myself that question and realised I would have to live to about 140 to read not only all the books waiting silently to be read, but also those I intended to re-read.  There is only one book I’ve ever read twice – To Kill a Mockingbird. So the evidence points to my not being one of life’s re-readers. Accepting this meant I could let go of dozens of books. Now when I pass my Agatha Christies on to friends and they say they’ll return them, I’ve learnt to say, No, it’s OK, I know who did it.
  • My mother is a great fan of Death Cleaning – this is the Swedish custom of sorting through your lifetime’s possessions before you die, so sparing your loved ones the task later. It’s become her favourite hobby. Most people might visit their 80-something mothers and find them weeding, knitting or watching Bargain Hunt. Mine is to be found among piles of crockery, Tupperware and spare lawn mower parts. She death-cleans with such gusto that I suspect if she’d heard of it years ago she might never have accumulated anything in the first place.  ‘I’m doing this so you don’t have to,’ she says. But recently I’ve noticed what seems to be happening is she’s passing things on to me so I’ll make the decisions about what to keep and discard. What she means is – ‘I’m letting you do this now so you don’t have to later.’ But I don’t mind. I’ve seen friends struggle to cope with these heartbreaking clear-outs after their parents have passed away. Now feels like the better time. My husband used to say things like, ‘We appear to have a large bag full of your mother’s retirement cards in the garage.’ Now he accepts it too. Her stuff has been annexed into our clear-out.  
  • According to Jen Gale in The Sustainable-ish Living Guide, once you’ve gone through the hassle of decluttering you become far more selective about what you bring into the house that might need decluttering again down the line. Once you start this process it becomes easier to live by the ‘Buy Less, Buy Better’ eco mantra.
  • Try this hardcore technique showcased by the Minimalists: Pretend you’re moving and pack up all your stuff into cardboard boxes. Label them so you know what’s in each one and then store them in a room in your house. When you need something over the next month, go and get it out and find a home for it. The theory is that anything left at the end of month isn’t something you use much and can be eradicated from your home.
  • When it’s time to get rid of documents such as bills, receipts, statements and personal letters, it can be a big but satisfying job. Some people burn them after shredding or dunk them in water, but the most eco-friendly method is to compost them. Paper is rich in carbon, which provides balance with materials rich in nitrogen, such as food waste. Avoid composting any paper that might contain high levels of toxic chemicals such as glossy paper. You can cut down on the volume by only tearing out the parts that contain sensitive data. Many letters contain a lot of standard official jargon with no personal references. These parts could simply be added to your recycling bin.

 A compost bin is the safest of all bins for personal papers. As one of our customers said, ‘Good luck to anyone who wants to go rummaging through my Green Johanna!’  

The golden rules of clear-outs

  • The number one rule is this – respect what’s important to other people. For me this means accepting that to certain family members thousands of West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United and St Helens RL programmes have the historic value of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It also means my husband will never again try to throw out the battered flight bag that is priceless to me because my Auntie Margaret bought it for me when I ‘went away’ to university. I actually only crossed the Pennines but I was leaving Yorkshire so…
  • Do not be fooled into thinking this is merely a physical exercise. This is a mental, emotional, and, yes, spiritual (if that’s the way you roll) activity. We are letting go in all senses of the word. If, like me, you are a fan of shows about hoarders, you’ll know that hoarding is thought to be psychological in origin, apparently related to feelings of loss. But don’t let this put you off. Take it slowly and gently, one room or even cupboard at a time and get a sympathetic (but not too sympathetic) friend or relative to help. Plan some treats, like taking a coffee break in a cafe. Go for the easiest room to tackle first – the bathroom.
  • Don’t leave the house while a clear-out is taking place.   My cousin managed to get her husband to clear out their garage. But then she went out, while he got busy taking all the ‘junk’ to the tip, along with a lifetime’s accumulation of precious Christmas decorations.  I know. It makes no sense, what was he thinking? Childhood ends but Christmas is for life.
  • Children are often motivated by the kind idea of giving something away so another child can enjoy it – but don’t force this spirit of philanthropy.  When the great comedian Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) died earlier this year I read that he blamed his bibliomania on the time he returned from school as a boy to find that his mother had given away all his precious books to the Salvation Army. Her argument was that he had already read them. To compensate for this loss he went on to collect 30,000 books over his lifetime. So encourage but don’t push too hard – it could backfire.  
  • There are wonderful schemes to redistribute books to children who have none of their own.  Abel and Cole’s organic delivery service runs a Give Back with Books scheme working with the Children’s Book Project.

Give Back With Books

Passing your things on:

  • Charity shops are always crying out for donations of decent quality – that means clean and undamaged goods with no missing parts.

 If we give them things they can’t sell, all we’re doing is passing the work of sorting it out on to someone else. Check with charity shops as to what they accept – most won’t take electrical items as they need PAT testing (Portable Appliance Testing) to ensure they are safe to use. Many shops also won’t accept car seats, bike helmets, medical appliances and safety devices.

  • Check out and

Acknowledge that your family’s needs change as your lives change. The small second-hand dining table that had served my family as our children were growing up was no longer adequate when our sons grew up and got partners, meaning a bigger family table was needed. I put the old one on freegle along with the five small Ikea chairs that had served us for years. The young mum who came for them was overjoyed. I felt delighted, if a little nostalgic for times past, at the thought that her children would now be eating and crafting at that table just as my sons had done. Time to move on.

  • Don’t forget to donate – and shop – at church fairs. There are some interesting and unusual donations depending on the lives lived by parishioners. On our book stall a few years ago an elderly lady asked if we had any Nietzsche. I don’t know what surprised me most – the request or the fact that I was able to say yes, we did indeed have some Nietzsche, and not just one but two! Waterstones, eat your heart out.

Job done. Now when Recycling Week comes round you can sit back and polish your green halo.


Spare Parts