Putting the right stuff in the right bin is important. The wrong stuff is called contamination. Most of us are getting it right, however, when too much contaminated material is collected, it potentially prevents the whole lorry load of material from being recycled.
Items that should NOT be put in your home recycling
These items need to be put in your waste bin.
COVID-19 test waste including Lateral Flow cartridges/testing devices
COVID-19 related Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including face masks
Glass cookware, Pyrex and ovenware, drinking glasses and ceramics
Tissues, wet wipes, cotton buds and cotton wool
Tips to avoid contamination in your recycling
Check our Recycling Locator tool to see what you can recycle at home
Visit our Recycle an Item pages to check how to recycle problem items
Check your local authority website or collection leaflet for specific instructions about how to recycle some items, e.g. lids on/off
What is recycling contamination?
Put simply, contamination in recycling refers to anything that’s in your recycling that shouldn’t be. In some cases, that might be the result of what’s known as ‘wishcycling’ – when we chuck without checking, in the hope that something is recyclable.
It could be something that’s recyclable, but not collected by your particular local council, such as plastic wrapping. Or it could be something that is collected by your local council, but that has been tainted by a material or substance that isn’t, such as a grease-soaked cardboard takeaway pizza box or the food residue from a can of beans.
It could also be something that can’t be recycled at all, and we’ll cover these in another article.
Why is contamination bad?
There are a number of reasons why it’s important to put the right things in the right bin. First and foremost, if there are too many of the wrong things, it can mean that whole lorry-loads of recycling can’t be recycled. In other words, a few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.
Another consideration is the increased costs of collecting and sorting contaminated recycling – costs that are ultimately borne by all of us, as taxpayers. By making sure the right things are in the right containers, we can all help save time and money and make the recycling process more effective.
Contamination can also reduce the value of the recyclable materials, and can lead to them having to be disposed of rather than recycled into new products. What’s more, some types of contamination can even be dangerous for the recycling and waste workers handling it.
In short, contamination is best avoided! Doing so can be confusing at a time when we’ve not yet got a recycling system that works the same way across the country, but as the recycling system as a whole becomes more consistent, things will get simpler. In the meantime, here are a few pointers to help you get your recycling right.
When something can be recycled, but not by your local council
It can be a little frustrating when you know that something is recyclable , but your local council doesn’t collect it as part of your kerbside recycling service. Here’s what to do with some of the most common items to avoid contaminating your recycling bin.
If your council can only collect plastic bottles, you won’t be able to put other forms of plastic packaging in with your recycling. This is because the council don’t have the right equipment to recycle them, and will need to pay additional fees to have them disposed of. Check our Recycling Locator to find out what your local council will take – why not make a list and stick it to the fridge?
Broken mirrors, pyrex and drinking glasses
The reason these can’t go in with your glass recycling is that mirrors are made from mixed materials, while pyrex and drinking glasses have different melting points. They can still be taken to your nearest household recycling centre for disposal, which you can find using our Recycling Locator.
Pots, pans and cutlery
Tempting though it is to put unwanted pots and pans and cutlery in with your metal food and drink cans , these shouldn’t be mixed because they’re made from different materials. Instead, either reuse them or give them away (if they still have life left in them!), or take them to your nearest household recycling centre where they can be recycled with other scrap metal.
Contrary to what you may have seen on TikTok, toothpaste tubes can’t actually be recycled with your kerbside recycling. This is because although they’re made of plastic, they need specialist recycling. Takeback schemes are the answer here. These are where manufacturers and retailers take back used packaging and recycle or reuse them. You can find a relevant scheme using our Recycling Locator.
Plastic bags, wrapping and pouches
For most of us, if we want to recycle our plastic bags and wrapping whether it’s plastic supermarket bags, cellophane wrapping or bubble wrap from a delivery, baby food pouches or frozen food bags – we need to take them to a front-of-store collection at our local supermarket.
Kerbside collections of plastic bags and wrapping are slowly being introduced, but if your council doesn’t yet have a scheme, please keep this material out of your plastic bottles collection. This is because these items get caught in the machines, and so need separate specialist recycling processes.
You can check our Recycling Locator to find your nearest participating store and read more about how plastic bags and wrapping are recycled.
Food and drink cartons such as Tetra Pak can’t always be recycled with your kerbside recycling. Again, check our Recycling Locator to see whether your council will accept them.
Always check the information provided by your council as to what items they can take and how they need them to be presented for recycling
Check the Recycling Locator for more on specific items and your nearest recycling points
If in doubt, leave it out!
When something can be recycled, but it’s contaminated with something else
When a recyclable item is contaminated with something that isn’t recyclable, it often means it can’t be recycled. Small amounts of the contaminated material are usually fine, but if there’s too much then it renders the whole item unrecyclable. This means it will end up being disposed of rather than being made into something else.
A common example of this is food packaging that still has food left in it – such as jars with bits of jam still inside, plastic bottles containing liquids, or takeaway trays and boxes that still have lots of food residue or grease in them. Another common example is cardboard that has sticky tape attached to it.
The key with this type of contamination is moderation. You don’t need to remove every label or bit of sticky tape, you don’t need to remove the plastic windows from envelopes, and you don’t need to put your jam jars through the dishwasher, just make sure the jars are empty and give them a quick rinse. It’s important to make sure your recyclables are in a condition that means they can be recycled.
Use your washing up water to rinse items such as glass jars and plastic bottles
If there’s lots of grease on your pizza box, you could tear off the greasy sections
Check whether your council collects the lids on plastic and glass bottles and jars – most do! If so, remember to replace the lids before recycling them
Remember to remove any polystyrene or bubble wrap before putting cardboard boxes out for recycling
Finally, it’s always better to check if you’re ever in doubt. You can find out more about what your local council collects on their website, but the easiest port of call is our Recycling Locator, where you’ll find more details on specific materials, kerbside collections for your area and your nearest away-from-home recycling points.