Last updated Wednesday 30 April 2008

Just a load of rubbish? Not if we get it sorted

When we're asked about being 'green', recycling is often the first thing that comes to mind. Despite some crushing criticism in the press, it can still cut CO2 and reduce landfill.

If you're concerned about greenhouse gases, recycling beats landfill in two ways. First, more energy is required to make most new goods than to recycle them, so it saves CO2. Second, rotting rubbish can produce methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times as potent as CO2.

Britain is dubbed 'the dustbin of Europe' for the amount of rubbish we bury. While our waste disposal habits are getting better, there is still plenty of room for improvement. According to the Local Government Association, if we continue to send rubbish to landfill at our current rate, in less than nine years we'll run out of landfill space.

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Photo: Recycling

Saves up to 400kg of CO2 a year

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How will it make a difference?

Pub Fact

  • Recycling saves the UK 10 to 15 million tonnes CO2 annually, a saving equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the road
  • Each UK household produces over 1 tonne of rubbish annually, amounting to about 31 million tonnes for the UK each year
  • If you recycled a single aluminium can you would save enough energy to run a television set for three hours
  • The construction industry alone sends 70 millions tonnes of waste to landfill a year
  • If all of the aluminium cans recycled in the UK in 1998 were laid end to end, they would stretch from Land's End to John O'Groats more than 160 times
  • Every 8 months the UK produces enough waste to fill Lake Windermere (the largest lake in England)
  • On average every person in the UK throws away their own body weight in rubbish every 7 weeks
  • Every tonne of biodegradable waste produces 300-500 m3 of landfill gas

The precise benefits of recycling depend on the material you're recycling - for example, recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy of making it from scratch, while recycling glass saves 25%. That said, glass can be recycled again and again without losing its clarity or purity - unlike other materials.

Overall, though, recycling saves the UK 10 to 15 million tonnes of CO2 a year - the equivalent of taking three and a half million cars off the road.

  • Recycling a glass bottle instead of making a new one can save enough energy to power a 100 watt light bulb for almost an hour
  • Recycling a tonne of card or paper can save 1.3 tonnes of greenhouse gases
  • The energy wasted when rubbish goes in your bin instead of to recycling could give you 500 baths, 3,500 showers or 5,000 hours of television
  • If UK homes recycled everything, they could save 31 million tonnes of rubbish from going to landfill each year. That's the same weight as 3.5 million double-decker buses - enough to form a queue from London to Sydney and back
  • In 2004, plastic bottle recycling saved enough energy to heat and light 1,700 homes
  • Recycling clothes saves more energy than recycling glass - it takes ten times more energy to make a tonne of textiles than it does a tonne of glass

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What's the debate?

"Doesn't recycling paper and glass use almost as much energy as making them in the first place?"

While recycling is almost always more efficient than making materials anew because it reduces the need for energy intensive mining and extraction of raw material, critics point out that the energy saved by recycling different materials varies greatly. Recycled aluminium saves 95% of the energy used in manufacturing, followed by steel (75%), plastic (70%), paper (50%) and glass (25%).

It is worth knowing a bit about the different materials though. For example, whereas clear glass recycles beautifully into new jars and bottles, green glass is more energy-intensive to recycle so usually ends up as aggregate in road building.

"Can't you just burn rubbish to generate electricity?"

Incineration (a process which burns waste at 1000C) is on the rise but critics say recycling is preferable because it prevents the CO2 embedded in a material from being released into the atmosphere and produces fewer air pollutants. That said, incineration could become more climate-friendly if the combustion process were used to generate usable power more effectively.

"Surely it's better just to generate less rubbish"

Recycling campaigns often promote the three Rs: 'reduce, reuse, recycle' - in that order. Reducing our consumption - especially of unnecessary packaging - is the most effective way to reduce emissions from waste.

Advocates of recycling claim that businesses should do more to provide biodegradable packaging and use less of the stuff in the first place. But while you're waiting for manufacturers to get the message and cut out wasteful packaging, it's still better to recycle what remains rather than add it to landfill.

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What's stopping me?

"Doesn't everything we 'recycle' end up in landfill somewhere in the UK anyway?"

We currently recycle about a quarter of our household waste, and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) claims that all of this ends up either being recycled in the UK or elsewhere. That said, our recycling rates lag far behind Germany (where 57% of domestic waste is recycled) and the Netherlands (64%).

"Isn't half our 'recycled' plastic shipped to China to be recycled?"

True. Until the UK's recycling capacity gets up to speed, proponents say that it makes some sense to ship our plastics to China, where they can be recycled and incorporated into new goods - many of which are then imported to the UK. Filling up empty cargo ships on their return leg of the journey to China makes better use of fuel than travelling without cargo. And the more recycled materials that China uses in new manufacture, the less energy and greenhouse gas it needs to spend on extracting raw materials. Indeed, a recent report by the NGO Forest Trends claims that China's use of imported waste-paper instead of trees to make paper products probably saved 54 million tonnes of wood from being harvested for pulp last year. Read more about it on the Waste and Resources Action Programme's website Recycle Now.

"Half the things that claim to be recyclable aren't collected by my local council"

According to DEFRA, some councils fare better than others when it comes to assessing their recycling credentials. See the DEFRA report.

In fact, you can recycle almost everything - from aerosols to bicycles - but some things like batteries, hearing aids and incandescent light bulbs are still beyond the reach of most local councils. Tetrapaks are recyclable in parts of the UK - check where on Tetrapak Recycling's interactive map.

If you're not sure what to do with the remnants at the bottom of your recycling box, check Recycle Now to find out what can be recycled locally and where to send the stuff that can't.

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How do I do it?

Reducing the need to recycle is the best way to tackle waste. You can do that by:

If you can't avoid it, here's how to dispose of it:

  • Check whether and what your council recycles on Recycle Now's website
  • If one isn't provided already, order a recycling box, bag or wheelie bin from the council
  • You can also get bags for organic waste, which the council takes away for municipal composting
  • Clean and separate items into their correct bags
  • Recycle e-waste. Due to new Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations, electrical waste must now be recycled. Check out where to put your electrical waste on Recycle Now's website
  • Recycle end-of-life vehicles and tyres: Waste Online
  • Recycle garden waste, and fruit and vegetable peelings, by making compost
  • Get bottled milk delivered to your doorstep. Each bottle is reused an average of 12 times
  • Take your old clothes to charity shops or clothing banks. Textiles present particular problems in landfill as synthetic (man-made fibres) products will not decompose, while woollen garments do decompose and produce methane
  • Recycle any junk mail that still gets through

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Iain, Stratford O/A 2009-05-01

Our council collects the bins every 2 weeks which in summer leavs the green compost bin reeking of fermenting grass and the bins get quite full quite quically.
sorry about the spelling!

Saurabh Jain, India 2009-05-01

I have just joined one new organization Greenobin provide a complete range of independent recycling and waste management facilities to both industrial and commercial customers as well as local authorities whilst reducing volume of waste going to landfill.

Jo, Brighton 2009-03-04

I've just discovered some brilliant recycling initiatives on - apparently old tights, even laddered ones as long as it's not too near the top, are the best way to hold on dressings for certain types of maternal injuries in childbirth - see Also for bras that are finished with, as long as the clasps still work, see

On another note, I'm expecting a baby and have just managed to buy a load of cotton nappies second hand and also maternity clothes from the nearly new board on Netmums - go to and you can register for your local site, free, then check out the nearly new boards. It's saved me a fortune!

leonardo, Derby 2009-03-03

I have just found an organisation called The Vyouz Network and they have a lot recycling ideas and different websites aimed at all age ranges. Seems very clever as they have included social networking to encourage people to get involved and talk about, as well actually recycling stuff. Anyway its worth a look as this seems to be quite effective and its free:

Erin, Crowthorne 2009-02-11

I recycle everything I can whether its letting the cancel take away my bits and pieces or using them to make things. My aim is to have far less waste for the bin man to take away and although I find recycling helpful for that, and a really good start, I have found it far easier just to lower my consumption and buy food with far less packaging. It really is not that hard!

Baz, Shrewsbury 2009-02-03

In the Shrewsbury area waste recycling is pretty well advanced (looking at it as a user). Unkike many councils Shrewsbury has a trailer policy which actuall encourages users to take in trailers rather than fill their cars. It is a permit system, but the number of permits given to each user is very generous and if you use them all, you can apply for more. We have the normal green and black bins with 3 boxes which is useful, the only complaint is that their is no collection for plastics other than to take them to the tip. It's a very good start, much more user friendly than my previous council in Wolverhampton.

Matt, Canada 2009-01-31

I worked with a recycling company and IT IS NOT THE ANSWER! It is helpful, but I get frustrated with people who go to the effort to recycle their yogurt lids, then refuse to change their consumption levels. It is a good thing, but not the best thing. I try to use a travel mug. It is difficult to not be judgmental.

Anonymous, Essex 2009-01-21

BRENTWOOD is set to become the first council in the country to launch a trailblazing scheme to reward recyclers.
The borough council will soon be installing a state-of-the-art reverse vending machine in the Brentwood Centre, which rewards residents for thinking green.
Cllr Russell Quirk, environment panel chairman, said he eventually wanted the council to purchase a number of machines which accept used metal and plastic containers before giving a reward of some sort to the user in return.
He said the reward scheme was being discussed this month between the Reverse Vending Corporation, the council and the Brentwood Leisure Trust who operate the centre.

Dunkon, cannock/staffordshire 2009-01-10

We have three blue small bins wich with the help of my wife son and all his friends we fill them with cans bottels and loads of packageing plus bags for paper every two weeks great start.

Anonymous 2009-01-07

We were given a blue bag to recycle paper and a box to recycle everything else (which is woefully small). I live with my husband and our cat and although we recycle as much as our council have provisions for at our local recycling centre, they won't collect recyclable 'stuff' if it is not a standard can, bottle or plastic milk carton. I am familiar with the system in Wallasey (Kinders) and although there are a lot of bins, their council seem to be taking the problem seriously instead of our council who are paying lip service to recycling by providing the facilities if you want to take your own 'stuff' as long as they don't have to collect it.

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Glossary terms used on this page
Air pollution
Air pollution usually refers to the presence of any chemical or particulate that alters the normal make-up of our atmosphere, causing direct threats to human health (such as breathing difficulties) or longer-term damage through its effects on our planet's ecosystem. Pollutants include smoke and dust, nitrogen oxides, methane, and the fumes from aerosol sprays and other solvents. Industrial processes and transport are major contributors to air pollution, but it can also be caused by natural processes such as forest fires and volcanoes. See also acid rain.
Organic matter that can break down or decompose rapidly under natural conditions and processes is referred to as biodegradable. Garden and food waste, animal waste, and most paper products, as well as plastics derived from vegetable content, will biodegrade, but not plastic carrier bags and polystyrene cups, for example.
Organic matter that can break down or decompose rapidly under natural conditions and processes is referred to as biodegradable. Garden and food waste, animal waste, and most paper products, as well as plastics derived from vegetable content, will biodegrade, but not plastic carrier bags and polystyrene cups, for example.
CO2, or carbon dioxide, is made up of the elements carbon and oxygen. It exists quite naturally in our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle. Everyday processes in the plant and animal world both add CO2 to the atmosphere and take it out. However, because it is a greenhouse gas - meaning it affects the temperature of the earth - the exact level of CO2 is important. Burning fossil fuels releases CO2 into the atmosphere, hence the anxiety that extensive use of these fuels is causing climate change.
Eco-friendly, or environmentally friendly, is a term applied to goods, services, processes or people deemed to do minimal harm to the environment. The term is shorthand for 'ecologically friendly', ecology being the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environment.
Emissions are the CO2 (and other greenhouse gases) produced by energy use, usually calculated and stated as an annual tally: also referred to as your carbon footprint. Your personal emissions can be direct - such as the gas you personally use to heat your home or the petrol you burn to power your car - or indirect - meaning the energy use that has gone into the products or services you buy. The latter, such as the emissions caused by the manufacture of your new TV, or the packaging your food comes in, are also referred to as embodied emissions.
Energy intensive
An energy-intensive process uses a great deal of energy - and therefore produces high emissions - relative to its useful output. As an example, beef production, has recently been cited as an especially energy-intensive industry, while tumble dryers are energy-intensive appliances. Products that are manufactured in an energy-intensive way are also said to be 'emissions heavy'.
Greenhouse gases
Greenhouse gases raise the earth's temperature through the greenhouse effect. There are six main examples. As well as carbon dioxide, they include: water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and CFCs (which include sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs). Of these, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs are controlled under the Kyoto Protocol to limit their concentration in the atmosphere. The heat warming capacity of each gas is measured by its 'global warming potential': how much heat it traps depends on its chemical make-up and how long it stays in the atmosphere.
Incandescent bulbs
Incandescents are traditional lightbulbs that use a filament (a thin thread of metal, usually tungsten wire) inside a glass bulb that glows white hot as electricity passes through it. The filament is prevented from burning either by creating a vacuum inside the bulb or filling it with inert gas. They are far less energy efficient than fluorescents/CFLs or LEDs because most of their radiation is given off as heat rather than visible light.
Landfill is disposal of rubbish by burying it under the ground.
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Methane is a hydrocarbon, the main component of natural gas and among the six greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto protocol. As a greenhouse gas it is estimated to have a warming effect about 25 times as great as CO2. (Compared to CO2 its effects are greater but last for a shorter period). As a fuel, it is used in electricity generation and in the form of compressed natural gas it can be used as vehicle fuel. Methane is produced during the decomposition of many materials in landfill, while about 16% of methane emissions are caused by livestock's digestive processes.
Textile banks
A textile bank is a place to take old clothes for recycling. Compared with other materials such as glass, there is, as yet, very little textile recycling in the UK.
A watt is a unit of power. Power is the rate at which energy is used, and a watt is equal to a rate of one joule of energy per second. Watts are commonly used when referring to the energy consumption of relatively small things like lightbulbs, while kilowatts (a thousand watts) are used for larger machines. Megawatts (a million watts) are used to measure the electricity generation of power stations. See also kilowatt-hours. navigation


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