Page last updated at 21:53 GMT, Friday, 2 February 2007

Where does your recycling go?

By Jenny Matthews
BBC News

As scientists from around the world blame humans for climate change, many ordinary people are trying to do their bit for the environment with activities like recycling.

Recycling box
More and more of us are recycling - but where does it all end up?
Across the UK, we are now recycling on average about 25% of our rubbish - much more than in recent years, but still behind many European countries.

Councils trying to keep up with European and UK government recycling targets have been introducing all sorts of different measures to encourage us to recycle more.

In fact, recycling increasingly seems to be becoming a compulsory, rather than voluntary, activity.

Some councils have fined people for putting the wrong rubbish in recycling bags, reduced rubbish collections to fortnightly, and put microchips on bins ahead of possible "pay as you throw" regimes.

Many people welcome this move towards recycling because it is good for the environment.

But among some, it is also stirring uneasiness, as they do not know where their recycling is going and what happens to it in the recycling process. If recycling is compulsory, people at least want to know what is happening to their rubbish.

Barnet resident Alex Cowlishaw

"We put everything we think is recyclable into our recycling boxes - but were recently told that much of what we do put there ends up in landfill sites in China," was a comment from one reader.

"My local council have just introduced compulsory recycling with three 'wheelie bins' per house. I would be interested to know if my newly recycled waste is just going for landfill," said another.

So we thought we would find out.

We chose three volunteer readers at random - one from Mill Hill in north London, one from Bradford in West Yorkshire, and one from Pontypridd in South East Wales.

And then we followed the theoretical trail of the items, as they are passed from one firm to another, until finally becoming something else.

Amanda Egan

Much of the recycling appeared to be conducted in the UK, with many of the finished products also being used within the UK, although some also ended up abroad.

Bottles, tins and plastic containers were turned back into more packaging but also transformed into objects including bricks, road surfacing materials, loft insulation, and car parts.

A range of firms, from multinationals quoted on the stock exchange to tiny companies with just a handful of staff, were involved.

On the whole, the recycling appeared to travel some miles - but not thousands, more like hundreds or even tens.

Some problems were thrown up - only one of the councils supplied a kerbside collection for plastics, for instance, and there was a glut of green glass.

Richard Ellis

However, the recycling market is constantly developing and Wrap, the government-backed body which finds new markets for recycling, is already trying to tackle both these problems.

Overall, the organisation believes, it is best in the long run to have a supply-and-demand system - even if there are initial difficulties in creating the market.

"Otherwise you end up like Germany which is heavily subsidised, but the minute the economy dips, that can go," says spokeswoman Pat Jennings.

Click on the pictures above to see the journey, in pictures, which could be made by household waste put out for recycling by our readers.

Some of your comments:

I fail to see the value of glass recycling in reducing the effects of climate change. Since glass uses a resource we are unlikely to run out of any time soon, surely we should be considering only the amount of energy used in glass manufacture - and we see it makes no difference whether we make glass from sand or from smashed glass, the energy cost is the same. If we want our bottles to make a difference, we need to make them from something unbreakable that only requires washing, or bring back the old 'deposit return.'
Paul Robinson, Inverness Scotland

Here is a confusing one, at least it has me confused. Our main home is in Birmingham, and the City Salvage Department collects waste paper. Any clean uncontaminated paper or cardboard, the whole gamut, once a fortnight. We have another place in Teignbridge Devon, that also collects waste paper, but they refuse to take cardboard and glossy magazines. What's the reason for this I wonder? I have to confess, that because we are seldom there on collection days, we bring our recycling rubbish home and have the City of Birmingham deal with it. Our next door neighbour in Devon kindly takes the rest out for us on bin days, because unlike B'ham they don't come to the house to get it. You have to take the bin down the lane.
Clive, Birmingham

Our council has been recycling for several years. The very first time we put out our blue bin with paper, cans and plastic cartons it got a red sticker to say it was contaminated and the rubbish was not collected. There was no explanation as to what the contamination was, so we still don't know. There is no point in stickers unless people are accurately informed as to what is wrong with their best intentions and efforts.
NY UK, Livingston Scotland

good and useful information, im glad topics such as this are published. would however like to see the impact of transporting such materials by lorry to plants over 90 miles away as in the Bradford and Pontypridd this the best option. i commend the councils for being able to source locally in other instance i would just like to know whether this is one instance or whether it is commonplace for materials to travel hundreds of miles to be recycled.. surely not an entirely efficient process considering emissions and congestion. i can only hope that the government can adopt and work closely with countries overseas in order to see what they are doing so that we can bring our recycling level up to theirs.
Lewis, Guildford, England

Recycling by Guildford Council is a joke most of the time they complain they cant get their vehicle down our road and don't collect it. And even then they don't collect all waste for instance they wont collect plastic containers. I have complained time and time again about this and they are not even interested. Mole Valley where I used to live are happy to collect everything.
Paul Farrow, Guildford, Surrey

I live in Durham, which still doesn't offer plastic recycling! I think it's wonderful that other materials - glass, metal, paper - can be recycled, but not recycling plastic seems so backwards to me, especially because of all the materials that should be recycled, plastic is number one. Back in Massachusetts, where I come from, people have been able to recycle plastic for over 10 years. Why is Durham, and after reading this article, it seems more of the UK, so backwards when it comes to recycling plastic?
B Haley, Durham UK

A positive waste management and recycling article. There are big changes happening in waste management and the UK needs to continue to embrace them. Less packaging, more re-use and repair, increased recycling and composting, more waste management alternatives for residual waste including MBT, waste to energy, anaerobic digestion and other thermal treatments. Makes a change to see a positive waste management article.
Peter Saunders, Nottingham UK

As the local park bins were being emptied of bottles and tins I asked if this rubbish was recycled. The answer was No; if this is the case does it mean that no public park or street bin refuse is recycled in London?
patricia mackay, kingston surrey

An important issue is to clarify what can be recycled and what can't. I know I can recycle plastic milk containers, but what about the tops? So I would like to see national standards set for recycling categories - for example at home I can put newspapers in the paper recycling bin but at work I can't, and here in Bradford I can put margarine tubs in the plastic recycling bins, but my friend in Norfolk can't. Then I would like to see legislation which requires manufacturers to label every single piece of packaging with its recycling category or a non-recycle sign for packaging which can't be recycled.
Rose Reeve, Bradford

Why on earth is recycled glass heated up melted and then remade into bottles again? Why isn't it just washed out and reused? This would be much cheaper and environmentally friendly!
Jo, Manchester UK

My council Chase District Council moved to two-weekly collections of rubbish so I decided I better recycle. I looked on their web site and under plastics they say you can put out milk and fizzy drink containers. This puzzled me as how do they know what these containers are made of? I asked them and was told that they really mean PET and HDPE but they don't tell this to the rate payers as this is too complicated for them. I now recycle anything made of these type of plastics and this has doubled the amount of plastics I am able to recycle. In the Recycling league tables Chase District is one of the worst, I wonder why?
Simon Dalling, Cannock, Staffordshire

I read with interest your three examples of recycling, as I wondered whether the items I so carefully separate from other rubbish are in fact just buried somewhere! I'm sorry to say that your piece read like a government propaganda story. None of the items mentioned finished up in China, Sri Lanka or India. Nothing went for incineration, although I understand this is common practice. It read like an item from Blue Peter, something warm, cosy, and telling us that everything in the world was rosy. It is possible for people to know the truth, and still be enthusiastic about recycling, and then perhaps the recycling will get better!
James, Oxford

My council is currently rolling out recycling measures throughout the borough. However, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. I can put cereal packet card in my kerbside box for recycling but my mum cannot, she lives three miles away in the next village. Neither of us can use the kerbside collection for plastic bottles but my mum-in-law can, she lives nine miles away - all served by the same council. We are to have green bins for compostable material, so long as it isn't veg peelings, grass clippings or anything like that. Recycling is very good but it needs to be made idiot proof so only idiots don't recycle.
jacquie, Doncaster

My council insists I recycle, and can fine me if I get it wrong. But they don't collect all recyclable materials, and I must put many recyclable goods into the landfill collection. Shouldn't the council be made to do its part if it expects me to do mine? I'm not allowed to be selective with my recycling so why should they?
Eno Nfa, Bristol Avon

It's odd that Barnet don't collect plastic bottles. our collection in Wimbledon take most everyday stuff like glass, paper, card and also plastic bottles. nothing fancy like batteries or mobiles though.
Martin Kidd, Wimbledon, UK

It's all well saying Recycle, Recycle, but when your council gives you a tiny box, collects fortnightly, and doesn't collect all recyclable items, picking and choosing the profitable ones, you wonder if it's all worth it. I still end up carrying bags and boxes of recycling round to the constantly overflowing recycling sites because the council doesn't collect often enough. I want to do my part for the environment and at the moment I recycle over 50% of my rubbish, clothes, shoes, books, etc, but could recycle more, if the council took it. My main bugbear is plastic bags. They all carry a recycling logo, but the council won't take them. I've invested in some heavy duty paper bags, which I use instead of plastic bags where possible. These can be recycled at the end of their useful life, unlike many of the "Bag For Life" plastic ones.
Jenny Shepard, Hove, England

We have three wheelie bins - garden waste, paper waste and a grey bin for everything else. However we take our own glass and plastics rubbish to the recycling centre on a monthly basis or when we can no longer get the cars into the garage! I have asked Fife Council why they don't pick up glass as they are missing out on a huge opportunity here - knowing how many people in our street alone drink wine and beer on a very regular basis! I know that no one else bothers taking such things to a recycling place. It would be just brilliant if we could put glass and plastic into our paper wheelie bin for someone to sort or something - like in the stories quoted in the article. It is a big shame that our council isn't doing more. I did get a cheap compost bin from them though.
Tina Hankin, Markinch, Fife

I used to live in an area where we had blue wheelie bins for recycling and you could easily fill one. I have since moved and now have a little blue box which we're supposed use, they don't collect plastic, which before made up much of the recyclable waste, and the boxes aren't up to the job as they're too small and fill up with water when left outside.
Steve, England

We compost what we can and recycle everything the council will take. However, all these good intentions could amount to nothing. There's very little information regarding *exactly* what can/cannot be recycled. Our council's plastic bins state "no yoghurt pots", but what does that mean, exactly? Which yoghurt pots? Are milk containers included? Or washing-up liquid bottles? A similar example is Tetrapak... I bet plenty of people put cartons out with their cardboard, but does that mean the whole consignment is contaminated? Our improving recycling figures will amount to nothing without proper education.
Adrian Clark, London

It's good to see that packaging is being recycled and reused however I think its shocking how mush packaging items from the supermarket for example actually come in! I'm sure that most of it is purely for aesthetics! Some packaging lifecycle must be no more than week... what a waste! The money and energy that could be saved by selling items in smaller more efficient packaging needs looking at. I think David Attenborough hit the nail on the head when in a recent interview on the BBC he said during the last war, people didn't waste food as it was rationed and you felt guilty if you did, now we must be encouraged to have the same view on wasting energy and resources.
Simon Payne, Birmingham, England

What about cardboard? It doesn't seem to be shown in any of the trails followed and I had heard the rumour it is all shipped to China!
Martin, Brighton

We definitely should not be 'punished' i.e. taxed, for not recycling enough, the answer to everything seems to be 'tax it'. Perhaps more people would be willing to recycle if they were offered an incentive such as reduced council tax. The same applies to using your car, flying, using central heating, etc. Don't tax, incentivise.
Ros, mid sussex, England

I recycle as much as possible, do home composting, use local produce and have my energy from a green supplier. I do however think that we are actually doing too much recycling. Take for instance your Barnet example. The energy used to recycle one glass bottle into another is extremely high (transportation, 1,500C heat etc, more transportation etc). I am not aware of a world wide shortage of sand (primarily used in the making of glass). Better still can't stores take responsibility and allow us to return unbroken bottles and other items to the stores directly, and thereby cut out all this wasted energy? We need to recycle less and reuse more
Tim Pearson, Manchester, UK

With house renovation and improvement so common I would like to know what happens to the waste wood, old and new, that is usually thrown into skips as a result.
Ian Cole, Hampton, Middlesex

It would be very helpful if councils or whomever provided facilities to recycle ALL materials, so less went to landfill. We take as much as we can to recycling centres but the kerbside boxes are reserved for only certain types of materials, with fines imposed for the wrong materials. Just where are we supposed to put these materials other than into landfill. More pressure should also be placed on the primary producers of the packaging etc, such as supermarkets and junk mail. They must be forced to provide packaging in 100% recyclable materials or face hefty fines at the store, not the customers who now have little choice over where to shop.
Phil, Oxford, UK

An excellent article. I would prefer councils to be more transparent about what is done with collected recycling, with statistics such as comparing what is collected (in weight) to what is actually recycled. Providing feedback like this could stimulate entrepreneurs and also enable pressure groups to put pressure on retailers to change their packaging (where necessary).
David White, Stone, England

recycling bins are all well and good, if your neighbours don't just chuck their normal rubbish into it in the middle of the night (day even!), especially during the Christmas week. forget locks, unless the council is prepared to make the locks all different. most of us have better things to do than to babysit bins 24/7
d, London

The difficulty is the inconsistency of the kerbside collections. Watford has a good service for plastics, glass, tins and paper but in other areas plastics are not collected. Give people the wider service and they will use it. The government needs to provide incentives for recycling as well as penalties for not
Hugh, Watford

I am really confused where and how to recycle/dispose things like light bulbs, used batteries, broken coffee mugs, shredded papers etc. Even though I am keen to recycle and help the environment I don't think I am getting necessary information on the relevant websites. can somebody help please........thanks
rohith kumar shetty, burton on trent, staffs, UK

I believe that Video Tapes are currently not recyclable, something should be found for them, there must be 100's of millions of them in this country alone.
Michael Pearce, UK

The first "R" of the three is reduce. So to begin with we should be avoiding buying stuff in packaging. Don't buy water in plastic bottles - it's expensive and environmentally damaging. Secondly, why are bottles not reusable as are milk bottles. Crushing bottles only to recreate them uses up a lot of energy. Beer and wine bottles should be of standard shapes and sizes and reused by their respective industries. Only lastly should things be recycled!
Quentin, Camberley

The point is not just where the recycling goes, it's also about the financial benefits to the collecting organisation. Recycling is all about reuse, and if our domestic rubbish is commercially reused then councils should at least make available their cashflow due to recycled rubbish, and provide taxpayers with a rebate from their commercial gain.
Will, Bury St Edmunds

We have 2 wheelie bins, a blue bag and a blue box: Green wheelie bin = garden waste (leaves, twigs, etc.) Blue bag = paper Blue box = Tins, cans, bottles, plastic bottles (although I put plastic food trays in and they take them) Grey wheelie bin = non-recyclable rubbish I think it works well but a lot of people complained because they only empty 1 wheelie bin per week (grey 1 week, green the next) and some people seem to be able to fill a grey one in 2 days flat! I think recycling should be compulsory and fines should be dealt for people who generate too much rubbish. Hitting people in the pocket is the only way to make them change their ways.
Colin, Skelmersdale, UK

All very interesting, but I wonder about all the extra journeys made by lorry on our over-crowded and polluted roads to move this recycled waste around. Not very "green", is it?
Sarah Lane, London

The recycling at my workplace gets mixed up with the normal rubbish and thrown in the bin. I and my colleagues see it happen on a regular basis. We've sent repeated requests to the building managers to stop this but nothing is ever done. Makes you wonder why you bother really...
Anna, London

Why do only some councils recycle envelopes? Having moved several times in the past few years I find myself having to relearn whether I can put them in my recycling for each new area. It also means a phenomenal waste in the areas that don't recycle them.
Julia, London

Why do local authorities, government depts., HM C&E etc. use BROWN envelopes which cannot be recycled??????? GGrrrhhhh
Suzy, Buckingham UK

I live in flats and pay full council tax rates but because i live in a flat i ma not entitled to the kerb side recycling scheme. Colchester does offer plastic recycling but unfortunately it isn't available to all. I try to do as much as possible but its difficult carrying recycling to the closest centre every week!
Katy Roberts, Colchester, Essex, UK

What really irks me is the fact that councils will charge local residence to throw away the over-packaging of supermarkets - Should the government not form a two pronged approach and not only put the onus on the consumer, but also the producer! If a council wished to be truly "green" they should also take a look at the local practices of the supermarkets and business in their community.
Steve, London

It does bother me that we don't yet have standards for what can be recycled where - I can recycle plastic in Greenwich, at home, but not at my partner's house in Gateshead. He can't even recycle cardboard! All these recyclable items are then going to landfill, because the council doesn't have the facilities - we need to get these differences sorted out.
Liv, London

Our Council only provides one recycling bin (paper and cardboard). Anything else has to go to the various recycling points or direct to the landfill/recycling centre - which can be a problem! I compost what I can, but have to burn whole plants like hogweed and Japanese Knotweed. What I really wish is that we could recycle tetrapacks - we drink a lot of fruit juice and have no recycling facility.
Jenny, Scotland

We're students who recycle the majority of our waste. An initiative co-ordinated through the university. However, my view is if the Scientists, governments and environmentalists are that concerned about saving the environment, they should financially reward people for recycling and inform them of the changes made. How many carbon foot prints are left by people driving to the recycling bank & the extra dust carts to collect recycling? Suzi
Suzi , Bournemouth

If they are enforcing us to recycle then why are they not enforcing companies to use biodegradable materials in everyday products? surely having a workaround (re-cycling) for the problem just makes it easier for the multi national companies making many millions of pounds in profit! Come on Councils / Government, sort the problem out! Don't just use recycling to skirt it!
Dave, Plymouth

Are we going to see a reduction in costs of buying items with recycled packaging - otherwise we are paying as a consumer, doing the sorting ourselve and receiving nothing in return. Carrot and stick is better than just stick.
Ted, West Midlands

Pubs and clubs must be made to recycle or reuse glass bottles more urgently than households. One pub throws out as many glass bottles a night as an average residential street does in a fortnight. I have challenged many publicans on this and every single one has admitted their bottles end up in refuse - i.e. landfill. The Germans drink more bottled beer than us yet the bottles are aways returned and re-used, whether bought in a pub, supermarket or off-licence. The solution is a legally imposed deposit on every bottle. Does our government have the political will to ensure all bottles are retuned to the breweries for washing and reuse or are they too afraid of the drinks industry and its fixation on a trendy image?
Richard Marshall, London

In the Netherlands supermarkets offer store credits for recyclable material such as glass and plastics. What better than a cash/credit incentive to recycle!!
William, Glasgow

Why on earth is recycled glass heated up melted and then re made into bottles again? Why isn't it just washed out and reused? This would be much cheaper and environmentally friendly!
Jo, Manchester

Humans blamed for climate change
02 Feb 07 |  Science & Environment
'Bin police' cost council 117K
31 Jan 07 |  Hampshire
Recycling 'ended up in landfill'
09 Jan 07 |  Edinburgh, East and Fife
Households face fine for rubbish
26 Oct 06 |  North West Wales

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2020 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific