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Are our recycling efforts a bit rubbish?

Plastic cups

How often have you gone for a picnic or been at an outdoors event and added your disposable plastic plates, cutlery, cups and food containers to the mountain of similar waste by the bin?

I know I have, believing I’m helping to ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ and doing my bit for recycling. I even make a point of adding such items (washed, of course) to my recycling at home.

Truth is, most of this waste doesn’t actually get recycled.

Plastic pollution

It’s estimated that six million tons of nondurable plastics are discarded every year and that every minute, one million disposable cups end up in landfills.

In an attempt to reduce this pollution, France has banned disposable cups, plates and cutlery, and decreed that by 2020, 50% of the material going into making these items has to be made of natural materials that can be composted. By 2025, it has to be 60%.

So could the UK follow suit? And should we go a step further and ban anything else that’s tricky to recycle?

Coffee cup waste

A case in point would be coffee cups from high street chains.

Much like the disposable plastic tableware France is banning, these are almost impossible to recycle. To make them waterproof, the card is fused with polyethylene, which can’t be separated out again at standard recycling plants. And with 2.5 billion of said cups being used each year in the UK alone, that’s a lot of waste being sent to landfill or to be incinerated.

Failing a total ban on such coffee cups, perhaps, as Which? Conversation community member dieseltaylor suggests, we should introduce a tax on them to encourage coffee drinkers to use reusable cups? After all, the 5p charge that was slapped on plastic bags in October last year has seen an 85% reduction in their use.

Even if our government doesn’t deem it necessary to go to the lengths that France has, maybe there’s a debate for better education about recycling?

Reviewing recycling

In researching this article, I now realise that, despite being an avid recycler (and indeed, upcycler), I’ve been doing it all wrong for years.

I’m not alone, either. In a recent poll by waste management company Viridor, 64% of those surveyed said they didn’t know what they can or cannot recycle.

With so much confusion, it’s little wonder that the amount of rubbish that gets rejected for recycling has increased by 84% over the past four years. Community member, Robert Taylor, suggests clearer labelling on plastic packaging, but perhaps, like the French, it would be easier to say ‘au revoir’ to plastic plates, cutlery, cups and coffee cups altogether?

I’ve always fancied one of those posh picnic hamper with bone china plates, cups and saucers, and stainless-steel cutlery in any case.


Good timing for this post. I’m currently waiting for Tesco to respond to my claim that they are closet eco-terrorists. I sent them a dozen or so photos for their food packaging showing no recycling info or that part of the packaging is not currently recyclable.

All things must be made from recyclable materials if possible. We are becoming a throw away nation Use it once then throw it away. What annoys me are the “charity”bags I get pushed through my letter box which all end up in landfill, is there any need or them now as charity shop take up most of any town ?

Sylvie says:
15 September 2016

I was told that in some occasion , recycled plastic bottles do not get recycled as they are more expensive to reused than making new products from row material especially when the price of oil is low.

Instead of slapping a tax on coffee cups, coffee shops could give 5-10p discount for using you own cup. After all using less cups saves them money e.g. cost of cups, transport and storage.

Starbucks sell a re-usable cup for £1, and if you use it instead of a disposable cup you get 25p off your coffee. Every single other big chain should offer the same, shouldn’t they?

They’ll be paying tax next 🙂

I see a number of councils are introducing 3 or 4 week collections for general rubbish, on the basis that most “grey” bins are used for waste that could be recycled (and to save money). Food waste and recycling will continue as now. Concerns are an increase in fly tipping and filling up your next door neighbour’s bin. However, if this does divert proper waste to recycling, and providing recycling is done properly, this should be a good move. Perhaps the money saved could be diverted to care in the community and reduce bed blocking.

I’d legislate against the huge size of weekend newspapers, little news and mostly paper. Perhaps tax them by weight 🙂

I’d also tax delivered parcels by volume – that might stop on-line retailers sending a car footpump in a large brown box, 5 times the size, stuffed with brown paper or inflated plastic.

As far as coffee cups go, I doubt anyone who is prepared to spend £2.50 on a hot drink that costs me 15p to make is going to be influenced by a 10p tax or discount.

However, a quick look at paper cups finds
“Designed for hot beverages, these Sustainable Earth by Staples™ Biodegradable Hot Drink cups can hold up to 200ml.
These cups are made from 100% biodegradable and compostable materials and are ideal for hot drinks such as tea, coffee, hot chocolate or soup. The cups are suitable for vending machine applications and can be eco-consciously disposed of after use.”

So is it incorrect to say, as in the Intro, “coffee cups from high street chains……..
Much like the disposable plastic tableware France is banning, these are almost impossible to recycle”

Occasionally, for a bit of ‘light’ reading at the weekend, I buy the Daily Telegraph on Saturday. Handily, the supermarket has a bin adjacent to the news-stand and I go through the paper discarding all the bits I don’t want, reducing the weight by over half usually – including all the advertising flyers that also fall out of the magazine. Some people only want the parts I don’t like so they go through the bin and take what they want and then buy a cheaper, leaner paper for the news. Unfortunately, no one seems to reject the sections I want.

A Japanese man has invented a machine that can turn plastics back into oil, a system known as pyrolysis. Although not as yet energy efficient it will provide a valid reason to encourage recycling and maybe help to preserve precious oil reserves for the future.
For more info log onto
sciencealert.com – Plastic Back into Oil.

Not a new technique and still around 5 – 10 years away from becoming financially viable, I suspect. Big problem with plastic is that most forms of it are inherently very stable, so require lots of energy to break them down. WaveChange might know, but I remember that someone was working on a biochemical process to do the same, but I don’t know how far they got.

This could be the DIY recycling of the future if it was made safe enough for domestic use and it was rendered sufficiently economically viable enough for local councils to do away with all the plastic bins in use at present. Not a popular option for the oil companies I would guess!

Of the “three R’s”, recycling is only the 3rd one: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, so recycling is only part of the story…

Quite right, Derek. Why do we need to pander to people who insist on having to carry their coffee around with them, slopping it all over the place and then dumping the cup in an overflowing litter bin? The railways have to employ an army of cleaners to clear up the mess on the tables and remove the huge volumes of waste, and our roadsides are becoming knee-deep in the detritus of drinking on the move requiring another battalion of litter-pickers. Bring back the vacuum flask or manage with water.

New Scientist reports there’s something of a quit race on for the fabled ‘Cold Fusion’ – the Holy Grail of energy. Utterly discredited twenty five years ago, seems governments are now quietly pumping in the money. Imagine – your own little cold fusion reactor in the back yard just requiring the odd plastic bottle and sea water once a month to keep it producing energy.

Would there be communal schemes in city centres for people who don’t have a back yard?

I still prefer proven renewable energy sources but accept that we need an alternative for places where the sun doesn’t shine and there are problems with getting the wind at the wrong time of day.

Spot on John – it’s now some kind of posturing lifestyle statement to be seen poncing into work behind one of those ridiculously large coffee containers. We don’t need recycling, just a change in fashion.

We live along narrow lanes so instead of a multi-section collection lorry all the items we have carefully sorted are all thrown together into the back of an open truck. We have been told they all go to a processing centre to be re-sorted and re-cycled. I actually take all our glass, paper, wood and metal to a household re-cycling centre where I hope it will have a better chance. Unfortunately they have no facility for plastics.