Recycle Week 2022: where are we and where do we want to be?


Recycle Week 2022 is running between 17-23 October and this year’s theme is “let’s get real about recycling”.

Recycle Week is the flagship annual event that celebrates recycling across the UK. Organised by Recycle Now, Recycle Week aims to bring together brands, trade associations, the Government, and the sector to “galvanise the public into recycling more of the right things, more often”.

Now in its 19th year, the theme for Recycle Week 2022 is “let’s get real about recycling”. Recycle Now says that it wants this theme to show that the UK is a nation of “real recyclers”.

Sometimes things get in the way of achieving perfect recycling habits. Recycle Now says that we are all “real people, with real lives”; however, by forgetting to check if something is recyclable or neglecting to rinse out a container before throwing it away, the item could contaminate an entire lorry load’s worth of recyclables.

This is the inspiration behind the year’s theme. During this Recycle Week, the organisers say they want to get real about “where we are. Where we want to be. And how we’re all going to get there, together”.

To learn more about where we really are, and where we want to be, in terms of recycling, Circular Online spoke to the General Manager at TerraCycle Europe, Julien Tremblin.

What items are people most confused about recycling?

Sticking to the theme of the event, I wanted to know what items people are most confused about recycling and why this is the case. As much as 80% of the things we throw away could be recycled. If the destination we want to reach is 100% recycling rates, we need to learn what items people are confused about and how to increase awareness.

In general, Tremblin believes that people are generally pretty aware of what is and what isn’t widely recycled.

“On-pack messaging has improved greatly in the last couple of years and recent developments like front-of-store flexible plastic collections have made recycling solutions for ‘difficult-to-recycle’ waste much more accessible.

We know recycling is not a silver bullet solution to the waste crisis, there is always more to do.

“Where confusion can arise is in the differences between local council collections. Just because an item of waste can be recycled by one council doesn’t mean all councils across the UK will accept it. With so many different rules across local authorities, consumers can find working out what they can put in their recycling bin at home a challenge.”

He says these challenges have led to a “great deal of difference” between council recycling collections, which can be seen in the recycling rate disparity.

According to the most recent figures for 2020/21, the highest ranked council had a recycling rate of 64.2%, whilst the lowest had 17.9%.

General Manager at TerraCycle Europe, Julien Tremblin.

“These differences can lead to confusion among consumers and also result in more waste being sent to landfill than is necessary.”

Curious about a solution to collection consistency, I asked Tremblin what the Government is doing to help and if he had anticipated any actions being effective.

“It is clear that investment in waste collection and recycling infrastructure will be required to achieve consistent collections across the UK and an EPR scheme is one of the surest ways to spur investment into the sector in the short term.

“Taking the example of France, you can see EPR allowed for collections across the country to become consistent thanks to investment in sorting technology which now equips Material Recovery Facilities around the country.

TerraCycle’s goal has always been to eliminate the idea of waste.

“However, even in countries with functioning EPR schemes, consistent collections do not mean consistent recycling. Many harder to recycle materials such as flexible or complex packaging will not be recycled because investment into collection consistency does not suddenly make these waste streams profitable for waste management companies to recycle.”

So, if flexible plastics are included in the consistent materials collection scheme, what would this mean for TerraCycle’s feedstocks?

“We are seeing huge developments in flexible plastic collections already with the recent introduction of front-of-store collections in hundreds of supermarkets across the country. The more people that make use of this new solution, the more likely it is to succeed and the more efficient it will become.

“TerraCycle’s goal has always been to eliminate the idea of waste, and so the more solutions that become widely available to consumers, the better. There will always be complex waste streams to find solutions to and TerraCycle will continue to find innovative ways to recycle even the most difficult items.”

Making collections consistent: what’s the solution?

A tablet case made by TerraCycle.

As well as government initiatives, more public awareness is needed. Not everyone is up to date on what they should and shouldn’t recycle, and there is a lack of consistency over collections between councils. Is the general public being equipped with sufficient knowledge of recycling?

“Consumers often aren’t aware of the importance of cleaning packaging before putting it in the recycling bin. While glass, metal, cardboard and paper are the most easily recyclable materials, issues arise when containers still contain food or product residue.

“Some consumers “wish-cycle” them and dispose of them in the recycling bin in the hopes that they can still be recycled; however, sticky residue can clog up machinery and interfere with the sorting processes meaning whole processing runs of waste are discarded and sent to landfill.”

Consumers often aren’t aware of the importance of cleaning packaging before putting it in the recycling bin.

He said that education around the waste crisis is at an all-time high, but there is still more that can be done on contamination. “TerraCycle asks programme members to send each waste stream separately per programme to avoid cross-contamination and disruption of the recycling process, but this is not as easy to achieve with council-led recycling as consumers often favour ease over separating each item of waste.”

Tremblin continues that, unfortunately, this may mean that “wish-cycling” can become an issue. He says that if consumers aren’t sure about the recyclability of an item, they may be inclined to put it in the recycling bin anyway and assume it will be filtered out during the recycling process. “This isn’t always the case, and waste that is otherwise recyclable can end up not being recycled”.

One prevalent issue facing recycling services is a lack of public trust. An Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN) survey has shown that a lack of information about what happens to recyclates after collection is the leading factor in England, Scotland and Wales, that negatively influences public confidence in recycling.

Rebuilding public trust in recycling services

Tremblin agrees that some distrust arises from the lack of information readily available about what happens to waste after recycling bins are collected.

“We need more transparency in the industry with regards to what happens to the waste to help boost consumer trust in the process – both council-led and private recycling alike.

“TerraCycle, for instance, has partnered with Evreka, a sustainability-as-a-service company that specialises in waste management tracking, to implement technology that uses real-time, optimised data that will revolutionise the waste collection operations for all TerraCycle waste streams.

“Not only does this allow us to track the waste through every stage of the supply chain and processing, but it also allows a much higher standard of third party certification of our recycling claims.”

We need more transparency in the industry with regards to what happens to the waste to help boost consumer trust in the process.

He says that a lack of trust is likely to lead to falling recycling rates and ultimately an increase in the amount of waste sent to landfills. While the waste crisis is still big on the National agenda, Tremblin says it’s important to keep up the momentum and keep educating people on the importance of recycling.

To improve recycling services, we need to tackle hard-to-recycle items. Speaking on which items he sees as the most difficult to recycle, Tremblin said:

“As a general rule, something is only recycled when the costs of processing it and turning it into a reusable format cost less than the end product is worth.

“Despite almost every material technically being recyclable, Multi-Material packaging and other more complex materials are expensive to separate and recycle and the end product is often lower quality, which means the process just isn’t cost-effective for local authorities to fund; the economics don’t work.

recycled watering can
A recycled watering can made by TerraCycle

He says that therefore the most difficult items to recycle are those which contain a complex mix of materials. Tremblin contends that most products are designed to look as appealing as possible to the consumer, “so we are more likely to pick them off the shelf”, but this also means they can end up using a wide range of materials in their packaging.

“If you take the example of beauty product packaging, a single product can contain glass, metal and plastic, which makes them “unrecyclable” through traditional collection methods.

“This is where TerraCycle comes in – we solve this problem of economics by working with brand partners who cover the costs of collecting and recycling various waste streams. We then offer recycling programmes for free to consumers on our website.

“Where we don’t have a free recycling programme we offer Zero Waste Boxes, a paid-for solution that can be used to recycle almost anything.”

How TerraCycle are tackling the hardest to recycle materials

As a solution to the hardest to recycle materials, Tremblin says that TerraCycle launched “first-of-their-kind” solutions for difficult waste streams such as crisp packets, medicine blister packs and coffee pods.

“These innovations have made the importance of recycling impossible to ignore and played a key role in the development of new schemes which make flexible and complex packaging recycling more accessible.

“We currently offer solutions for difficult waste streams including PPE, stationery and beverage capsules through our Zero Waste Box solutions. These are paid-for solutions available to businesses and individuals looking to recycle almost any waste stream.

He says that TerraCycle also offers free recycling programmes that are launched in partnership with brands and are available to members of the public to sign up and set up drop-off locations on behalf of their communities.

We are always looking for new waste streams to tackle and new ways to recycle.

“In the UK we have partnered with the likes of pladis, the company behind McVitie’s and Jacob’s, to offer a solution for biscuits and snack wrappers, Cathedral City for cheese packaging, Garnier has sponsored a solution for personal care and beauty packaging and there are around 45 more programmes offered on our website.

“Innovation is at the core of everything TerraCycle does, and we are always looking for new waste streams to tackle and new ways to recycle. We are glad to see progress being made to improve recycling rates but we are still only scratching the surface of the issues around waste.”

Tremblin continued that TerraCycle will be at the forefront of finding solutions to recycling issues.

During Recycling Week it’s an appropriate time to assess recycling services and ask if we are where we want to be. And if not, what can be done to improve them to ultimately reduce waste? As Tremblin said, when he spoke to Circular Online, “We know recycling is not a silver bullet solution to the waste crisis, there is always more to do.”

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