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  • Victoria Cornelio

Where Does the UK's Recycling Go?

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

Whether it is with bins carefully labelled or a pile in the corner of your student accommodation, most UK citizens are doing their civil duty of recycling and separating rubbish as best they can.

We are taught our Three R’s in school; REUSE whenever you can, REDUCE waste and when there is nothing else to do, RECYCLE. Our civilian obligation is to REUSE and REDUCE, and then facilitate government and local authorities during the RECYCLING phase by separating our waste into the appropriate categories for it to be turned into something else.

But what really happens to all of our rubbish after it is collected by the bin men?

The 50% that stays here

According to a Greenpeace report from 2021, although the UK Government claims that more than half of plastic packaging is recycled, it actually gets incinerated. Incineration not only causes unpleasant noises and smells, but also contributes to air pollution and environmental contamination. In addition, a study in 2020 by Unearthed proved that most of these incinerators tend to be in low-income neighbourhoods across the UK, making this not only a climate topic, but also a social issue, because these people are victims of all the waste and smoke from these gigantic incinerator points. The study revealed that these lower income areas are mostly inhabited by Black or Asian people of colour, with past studies – 2019 London Mayor’s office findings and 2019 Imperial College research – proving that air pollution is worse in these communities. People of colour are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality, due to higher exposure to toxins and burnt rubbish, since industrial sites and incinerators tend to be developed in these areas, making them more vulnerable to respiratory diseases and health complications.

Also, people living in these areas complain of the terrible smells, especially in the summer, and increased traffic due to the trucks bringing the waste. The UK is currently in a waste crisis as it piles up, and because of the lack of specialist facilities to process plastics and other rubbish, the incineration centres continue to be the easy solution. These operations are masked as “energy from waste” projects aimed at producing electricity and fuel for power plants, but the air pollution risks are too high and dangerous for the people living around the area and neighbouring communities.

So…this is only half of our plastic packaging, what about the other half?

UK recycling imported into less developed countries

The other 50%

Well, the UK sends three and a half Olympic swimming pools of household rubbish to countries with low recycling rates every day, claiming they get recycled over there but no one follows up on these operations. As countries become more conscious of the dangers of plastic and their threat to the marine life and the environment, UK rubbish is being declined or sent back, meaning the UK is polluting every coastal country they can until they refuse. According to Greenpeace, the UK is currently dumping rubbish in Malaysia and Turkey and this is having serious consequences on the health of many communities and marine life in these countries. A Malaysian solicitor reported people are having breathing difficulties and have been feeling unwell due to the toxic fumes they are exposed to by the plastic being incinerated nearby.

"the UK sends three and a half Olympic swimming pools of household rubbish to countries with low recycling rates every day"

So realistically, less than 10% of our recycling really is recycled in the UK, while the rest is incinerated or shipped abroad to be dealt with illegally. This does not mean we should give up on recycling and separating your waste, this goes beyond that. We need to take our moral obligation of REUSING and REDUCING seriously, because the overwhelming amount of waste is saturating RECYCLING facilities and leaving the government no choice but to dump it or incinerate it.

However, the government could do better. Greenpeace has urged the UK to reduce single-use plastics –goods or products meant to be disposed once used the first time-, by 50% by 2025, to alleviate the waste crisis and reduce trash. Green Recycling’s general manager, Jamie Smith, says UK citizens produce between 200 to 300 tonnes of trash a day.

Let's do the math really quick:

Imagine 250 tonnes of trash are produced on average a day for seven days, totalling 1,750 tonnes a week, and around 7,500 tonnes a month, with only 750 tonnes – 10% of 7,500- actually getting recycled monthly. In 2020, the UK sent 688,000 tonnes of discarded waste abroad to be disposed, only recycling 486,000 tonnes. For 2021, if these rates continue at 1,750 tonnes a week, the UK would be producing around 910,000 tonnes of waste this year. Whew!

Single use plastics and UK recycling

Let's recycle right

If these facts do not scare you, we are sure the landfills and incinerating grounds would. So, let's avoid that, together.

Here are a few tips by the Evening Standard on how to recycle correctly and effectively in your household:

1. Anything plastic or bottle shaped can be recycled, even detergent and bleach bottles.


If your community has a single stream recycling system, do not crush your bottles as they may end up on the wrong stream. In a multi stream method, crushed bottles might be okay because they are separated by material and they prevent harbouring germ colonies or being misused.

3. Give things a quick rinse before throwing them out, so they can be recycled and not discarded as waste.

4. Do not recycle cardboard boxes or paper covered with food as they mess up the new materials and the grease cannot be removed.

Remember your THREE R’s: Reuse everything you can, reduce as much waste as you can, and when there is no alternative, pop it in the bin for recycling…. hopefully.

Let us know any other recycling tips you find helpful and help us educate more citizens how to correctly dispose of their waste!

For more resources on sustainable living, head to our dedicated Climate Crisis section.

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