Can I recycle this?

We have all been there, we’ve all had an item of packaging in our hands hovering over the recycle bin, examining the small print to see if it can be recycled. It’s a real problem and one with real world consequences. In this blog we’ll explore themes around this growing frustration, and identify future developments which will hopefully alleviate the problem.

What’s it all about?

To begin with, we need to understand the level of public resentment towards the recycling of packaging. A summary of recent polls and surveys can help identify key areas of frustration and concern. YouGov, for example, published a poll stating that 83% of Britons want recycling to be made simpler. A poll by the UN found that only 17% of labels gave clear and concise information about recycling to consumers. A survey by Which? Magazine found half of Britons do not understand the diverse array of recycling symbols – from the Tidyman logo to the Mobius Loop.

The impact of this uncertainty is causing a real problem in the UK. As the general public binge watch David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet and Sky TV’s A Plastic Voyage, we as responsible citizens are starting to understand the damaging consequences of waste within our communities and wider planet. People have begun to make small changes – from using reusable cups to buying bamboo toothbrushes - to avoid single-use plastic.

However, households are unwittingly disposing recyclable packaging within general waste bins. According to the WRAP Recycle Now national recycling campaign for England, nine out of ten British households say they regularly recycle. The majority of these, however, will place at least one or more non-recyclable items into their recyclable bin. Common items include toothpaste tubes, plastic bags and drinking glasses. A further one or two recyclable items will be incorrectly placed into general waste including foil, aerosols and plastic detergent bottles.

That is the crux of the problem. British consumers want to recycle more and local authorities are endeavouring to ramp up their recycling infrastructure (as much as they can after a decade of real-term budget cuts). But what does the future hold?

Moves to make packaging instructions clearer

From a formal legislative point of view, politicians seem to be waking up to the problem. The UK Parliament has presented a new Environment Bill which will introduce rules and guidelines on “clearer labelling”. Further developments include increasing recycling provision and the introduction of new local guidance.

The non-profit organisation On-Pack Recycling Label (OPRL) operates a scheme used by the majority of retailers and producers in the UK which aims to promote UK-wide messaging for recyclable packaging. After nearly a decade, the scheme is now recognised by 7 in 10 consumers. Earlier this year, OPRL launched a new set of binary recycling symbols which set out to clarify for consumers exactly what can and cannot be recycled. This scheme is recognised by the UN Environment Programme and supported by HM Government.

But what does it mean in practice when you’re next hovering over the bin? The new system has two main symbols – one that says “Recycle” and another that states “Don’t Recycle”.

This will undoubtedly make things a lot easier for consumers, highlighting the correct disposal route for packaging and reducing the amount of recyclable waste sent to landfill. The new labelling scheme also addresses the complexity of local authorities across the country providing different recycling services (whilst simultaneously using the same nationwide waste services provider). Overall aim will be to boost low collection and recycling rates through a simplistic system, leading to an increased, and more accurate, consumer uptake.

With UK retailers intensifying their recycling initiatives, polling data suggesting consumers want to do the right thing and the Government and non-profit organisations providing a range of labelling support, things appear to be moving in the right direction. Only time will tell if those bin hovering moments will be made any easier.