How can we make doorstep recycling better in the UK?

green-binThis is something that’s been bugging me for a while but I’ve not known what to do about it – and it occurred to me the other day that some of you awesome, knowledgeable and inspiring people might have some suggestions.

The inconsistency in doorstep recycling across the UK drives me mad. Every council has a different way of collecting it, collecting different things and picking it up on a different schedule. For example, living in Leeds (as I did for a decade until three weeks ago), we had one green bin, emptied monthly, which could contain cans (but not foil or aerosols), all paper & cardboard, and plastics 1, 2 & 4 – but not glass, which had to be taken to bottle banks at supermarkets or tips, or tetrapak which had to taken to one of five locations spread across the city. Now living *just* over the border in the neighbouring council Bradford, we recycle cans (including foils & aerosols) & glass in one bin, paper & card (but not brown cardboard or brown envelopes) in another – but not plastics or tetrapak in either (which have to go to a tip).

Now I know in the grand scale of things, there are bigger things to be annoyed about but I think the confusion caused by such inconsistency and complexity really hinders the everyday recycling process. If in doubt about something, cautious people will leave stuff out – meaning stuff that can be recycled is going to landfill – or less cautious people will throw it in, which could jam up the whole sorting process. It also means recycling advice on packaging is vague – I’ve seen guidance which says “this packaging may be recycled in some places”: gee, thanks for that.

Asking people to take stuff to their local tip/household waste site usually assumes they have somewhere to store it in the meantime, a car and time/inclination to go – and obviously having lots of people drive their carrier bag full of plastic bottles to the tip wastes a whole lot of resources in itself. Where we lived in Leeds, car ownership was low, there were no public transport routes from the estate to the tip and it wasn’t really like you could go to the tip on the way to somewhere else because it was in a weird no-mans-land location — so a lot of glass etc ended up going to landfill unnecessarily as our neighbours just put it in with their other waste.

Now I know that different areas have access to different recycling facilities within the local area, that different recycling sorting processes require things to be sorted in different ways and that there isn’t one right answer to how things should be done. But surely it could be done better than this.

So my questions are these:

  • do you think this inconsistency is a problem or is it just me? what do you think could be done better with doorstep recycling in general? What about “doorstep” recycling for businesses too?
  • Have you lobbied your local council to improve doorstep recycling or have bottle banks etc installed in your local area? Was it successful? What’s your advice for someone else trying the same thing?
  • If individual councils will fob me off because they’re isolationist, who do I go to next? Is there a council of councils? If a lack of recycling facilities is the problem, what can be done to make sure more are built or made more efficient?
  • Do you think it’s a money issue (if enough money is thrown at the problem, it’ll be solved), a people issue (people using existing recycling schemes wrong) or a bureaucratic issue (councils being isolationist and inefficient)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – I know there are a few experienced political activists who read the site and environmental professionals so I’d love to hear your take on these questions, but I’d also love to hear about what everyone else has to say as consumers of doorstep recycling.

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13 Responses to “How can we make doorstep recycling better in the UK?”


  1. Bobbie says:

    “It is very easy to make things complicated, but requires more thought to keep simple”. This is one of my own sayings after spending years trying to write simple easy systems for users. We people seem to want to complicate things.

    Here in the USA it all depends on the contract the city has with the recyclers as to what they will and will not take. It may be more complex than that as there may not be nearby recyclers for the “will not take”. From a consumer’s standpoint though, it is all too complex. My advice is spend time investigating why things are as they are, then picture what “we” would like them to be”.

  2. Sam says:

    I’d like, first and foremost, better information on plastic packaging – like a number on every piece. Then at least your council could say definately yes or no if they can recycle it.

    Then I’d like a big green bin, into which I can put *everything* which can be recycled – cans, foil, glass, plastic, cardboard (all types), tetra pak, batteries … This would need to be picked up weekly.

    The council would have to pay for “sorters”, but at least there wouldn’t be a problem with the wrong things in the wrong box.

    I feel everyone would be happy to recycle this way – it’s just as easy as throwing it away, just in a different bin, and no-one needs access to a car or lots of storage.

    • louisa says:

      Very good point about making sure all the plastic is numbered – so much isn’t, or has non-standard markings so it’s hard to tell whether it’s in or out.

      The weekly pick up thing is also a very good point — something I forgot to mention, another inconsistency. In Leeds, we used to have our never-more-than-a-sixth-full landfill bin collected every week but our always-full recycling bin only emptied once a month. All it took was one delivery or the like in a cardboard box a month for it to be filled completely from day one. I know some councils do fortnightly collections of both, since reduces the overall amount of collections but keeps both happening regularly – when they scale back from weekly for landfill, they get a lot of complaints but then it largely settled down.

      Leeds actually hasn’t had regular bin collections – destined for either landfill or recycling – for two months now because the collectors are out on strike over pay issues – most places have had one or two pick-ups by private firms breaking the strike but that’s it. While month-old overflowing bins and piled up bags are obviously an environmental health issue, I wonder if it’s made some people really think about how much waste they’re producing – how it piles up when it doesn’t magically disappear each week…

    • Simon says:

      Hi with regards the sorting by hand thing you’d be amazed at how much effort humans will put into being lazy.

      My mum and dad live in Herefordshire and until recently their recycling collection has been pants (it is VERY rural in fairness) but they have just stated to catch up and seem to be doing it very quickly.

      They got the leaflet below through their door recently – very interesting especially the last bit which explains how they can put all their recycling in one bin and it is sorted automatically (I was especially impressed with the ‘eddy current separators’ for separating aluminium cans

  3. Jayne says:

    Great post, and an issue that really needs sorting out. I think it’s a political issue, as it depends on how much the local council can afford/is prepared to charge in council tax locally.
    There should be guidance nationally to coordinate recycling and benefit from local best practice.
    Some councils even have different policies within the boundary, my parents have been given a wormery to compost food waste, where nearby there us nothing.
    We have fortnightly wheelie bin collections, the bins are huge and as I am trying to reduce all of our waste, I asked the council for a smaller recycling bin. The council worker could not get her head round the fact that I wanted to recycle less, and I couldn’t persuade her this was a better thing to do.

  4. Joe Short says:

    I am in wholesale agreement with this post.

    Four suggestions I have towards better recycling:

    Information.

    I agree that consistency across the UK would go a long way towards improving service and increasing recycling levels.
    - there could be national advertising/information campaigns with the same message.

    Laziness.

    The main reason most people don’t recycle is through sheer laziness. So simply I would suggest make it easier for people to recycle and harder for people to landfill. Why is it that we have to travel to recycling depots but can put landfill sacks on our doorstep? Shouldn’t it be the other way round? Even having to take your landfill sack to the corner of your street would change some people’s behaviour. This could have the added benefit of improved efficiency for the refuse collection service.

    Stigma.

    I wonder if we had clear plastic sacks with your house number where everyone could see you throwing away recyclables – if that would change behaviour.

    Economics.

    I think the carrot and stick of economics really can have substantial impacts. After all, this is the main reason Daily Mail reader types are up in arms about the possibility of bin taxes.

    - All of these measures may be flawed in some way or other – I would be quite happy to have these flaws pointed out to me.

    Many thanks
    Great blog

    P.S Where I was living recently in a block of flats there was no recycling collection. I offered to take my neighbours’ recycling to the depot as I passed it on the walk to work. One elderly neighbour took me up, she would leave stuff on the doorstep for me. Three other neighbours didn’t. Why? Who knows?

  5. caroline says:

    I used to be an employee for a charity that educated people about waste. I would recommend writing to your local recycling officer and being really nice. Say you like to recycle and whatever new recycling methods they are planning to bring in you will fully support. And that you would support reducing collections to landfill.

    These people are often keen environmentalists, with tight budgets and council pressure that get a lot of agro from everyone. I have been at meetings with them where people were behaving discracefully towards them – swearing and even threatening behaviour. Some wanting not to recycle and some wanting to recycle more.

    So. I guess my main part of my comment is – give them the positive message that I get when I read everyones posts on this site. These people are trying very hard and don’t often have the public support that you would imagine.

  6. Simon says:

    Hi Louisa

    Great post – one of the things that constantly annoys me about trying to follow various councils recycling rules is kind of along the lines of what Bobbie above stated, but then also the exact opposite…

    It seems to me councils frequently oversimplify instructions and give no reasoning behind their requirements. For instance my council used to state ‘no envelopes’ in the paper recycling, this was because they didn’t want windowed envelopes or brown envelopes (still no idea why not brown). This used to infuriate me as I was constantly throwing away loads of paper envelopes, they now state exactly what they mean and I happily rip the windows out of my white envelopes and as a result recycle a lot more. (although I still throw out brown envelopes with a confused frown)

    The same is true of efforts by councils and supermarkets to recycle plastic bags – what do they mean? Is is just carrier bags for a good reason unknown to me or is it any LDPE plastic bags such as bread bags, sandwich bags etc?

    Clothes – only in good condition or any cloth scraps, torn jeans etc for textile recycling?

    A single site which contained details of all the various council doorstep recycling schemes in use, used common explanations of the technologies used and gave full details of exactly what can be recycled as a result would be great, it would also be a useful resource for comparing councils and putting pressure on those behind

    Just a random brainburst but hope it helps

    • louisa says:

      Great random brain burst, Simon :)

      When I started Recycle This in 2006, I remember spending a lot of time looking at doorstep recycling provision for various councils around the country and finding it almost impossible – things have come a long way since then thankfully — most councils have comprehensive lists on their websites.

      Recycle Now, the main government-funded recycling website, has got doorstep recycling lists too – pretty neat and easy to read ones too — but lacking any sort of explanation and the info does seem to be wrong for my council… It would be so much easier to keep that information accurate and up to date if every council recycled the same stuff…

    • Janet says:

      Hi Simon

      You asked about plastic? , Sainsburys have bins in their stores, which takes plastic with the symbol 04 in a triangle with the letters LDPE. or LD PE under the base of the triangle, so it is not only for carrier bags. Not sure if other stores do this?.

  7. Vic says:

    Just thought I’d add to this great discussion. I lived in Germany about 15 years ago, which was where I was first introduced to the whole recycling thing, and there it was just made so easy. You had see-through yellow bags – which you bought from the local supermarket – and in them went plastic, tetra paks (the cardboardy milk carton thingys), tins, tinfoil, carrier bags, ready meal trays etc, and these were put out next to your bin every second week (no limit on how many you could put out, just as many as you had used), for the other recycle-ables you could tie up newspapers/other papers (with real string!) and the same with cardboard boxes. A man came round with an open back truck and all the bags got chucked on it – they weren’t very heavy! You still had weekly rubbish collections, but we really had very little to put out, which were in black bags, Then once a month was a bulk rubbish collection, where you could put out pretty much anything, washing machines, old bikes, etc. It was so easy, there weren’t half a dozen different coloured bins, and if you did put paper into the yellow bags the bag was left behind for you to remove it. I don’t ever remember actually going to a ‘dump’ or ‘recycling centre’ as everything was collected. The whole process was very easy, and everyone I came in contact with complied without really thinking about it. There certainly wasn’t the fuss we have in the UK. When we moved back to the UK and found that there really wasn’t any proper facility to recycle things I found it far more difficult to readjust myself to that than I had to recycling. I live in the North of Scotland now and the recycling here is happening, slowly, we have a paper and tin collection once a fortnight, and a garden waste collection once a fortnight, however if you want to get rid of cardboard or plastic bottles, we need to travel 15 miles to the nearest recycling centre, glass bottles are a bit closer.

    I really do believe that councils have made it very hard on themselves, if they had had any sense they would have checked out some countries which have been doing it for many years before deciding to fork out a fortune on multi-coloured and very confusing bins! If they really wanted to spend the money, maybe they should have paid for us to have different coloured bin bags!

  8. Cipollina says:

    Where I live in Italy we get a tax reduction for recycling and composting – we got the compost bin for free, by the way.

    In some towns they even weigh your regular (landfill) garbage, and fine you if it’s more than what your household should produce after sorting out the recyclables.

    For the recyclables there are four containers ca. every 100-200 m – one for glass, plastic and metal, one for paper and cardboard, one for garden and kitchen wastes, and one for non-recyclables. They get emptied once a week. Those nearest to my house are found on the edge of our parking lot, and I pass three more on the ten minute walk to the village (this is in the countryside). In the nearest city you will find at least one such group of containers on every street, sometimes there is one along each of the four sides of a regular block.

    Oh, now I almost forgot to mention that on two of the four “eco islands”, as they’re sometimes called, that I pass on the way to the village there’s also a container for clothes and other textiles that get donated to charities.

    For bulky stuff like bicycles and furniture and such there is a free number one can call, and they come and collect within a couple of days. For free.

    All supermarkeds/grocery stores take dead batteries, and all pharmacies take old medicines. Some towns have collection of used frying oil – and I’ve seen people (locals) put out bottles here, too, even though we don’t have this service yet out here in the wilderness.

    Did I mention that I’m in Italy, the mother of red tape, anarchy, and the maffia…?

  9. I am in Wirral and we had a terrible record for recycling, this has improved radicly over the last few years with a grey bin collection (for recyclables), a brown bin (for garden waste) and a green bin (for rubbish). WE just a renewal letter for a days of collection, it alternates between grey and green/brown. But they council missed a trick because they outlined what could go in which bin but they did not take the time to say that Tetra packs could not go in the grey recycling bin but there are tetra pack collection points at Asda and other “private” venues. I think they should have joined up thinking and provide links to other sources of points of recycling for batteries, stamps, clothing etc.

    Our grey bin goes to a massive sorting plant and is set up for mixed recycling and I visited the plant it was amazing and gave me greater insight as to why they asked for plastic bottles not to be squashed and to have the lids on (helps the machines recognise them as plastic bottles).



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