Contamination of Recycling


The contamination of recycling is a concurrent issue across almost all economic and cultural circles. Local councils report up to 30% contamination of communal recycling bins, with plastic contamination amongst card and paper a particularly common occurrence. In 2020 alone, paper recycling specialists DS Smith reported enough plastic contamination at their paper mill to fill 4.8 million bin bags.

Major Influences

A major point of consideration is that volumes of refuse have increased dramatically as a result of the pandemic, with households spending considerably more time in the confines of their home and contributing to more waste and recycling quantities as a result. Post-pandemic, these volumes have decreased, though the baseline generally remains around 10-15% higher than in previous years, presumably due to more people working from home.

The predominant issue with contaminated recycling is that a large proportion of the recyclables that we have gone to such trouble to segregate, now have to be landfilled, due to relatively low levels of contamination. One offending item can lead to a whole lorry load of rejected material, with non-recyclables like food waste, textiles and used nappies the common offenders in mixed recycling stations. Waste management company Biffa recently revealed new research, collected from 2016 to 2020, stating nearly 17% of waste from businesses and households in England and Wales is rejected due to contamination.

Wish cycling, which involves questionable items that people wrongly assume can be tossed in a recycling bin, such as paper cups and flexible plastics, also poses a significant detriment to the success of appropriate recycling practices. A recent survey by WRAP unveiled that as much as 80% of people recycle items they shouldn’t.

Targets and Schemes

It’s estimated that the United Kingdom generates around 222.2 million tonnes of waste each year. According to recent figures, the recycling rate in 2021 dropped to 43.8%, a fall of 1.7% from the previous year.

In response, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has released ambitious targets for packaging recycling in the United Kingdom for 2022, aimed at businesses and councils. Their overall recycling rate has been set at 67.6%, with the installation of effective waste-management systems a prominent means for achieving this goal. For councils and local authorities, much of the onus to recycle more efficiently will fall to the general public.

The Environment Bill, which became law in November 2021, included major changes to waste and recycling practices for households and businesses across the country. Among the most prominent changes is an expansion to the type of materials able to be recycled, as well as the requirement for more consistent, full suites of recycling streams for households and businesses.

On a broader scale, organisations such as Re-London represent efforts to reduce and improve the management of waste and recycling. Their consensus centres around a “circular economy”, a process that involves finding new ways to cycle materials and value back into the system, reducing the need for “virgin materials” by making the most of what we already have, as well as achieving better segregation of recyclables at the source. This is particularly challenging in more built-up areas, such as blocks of flats.

Current Prevention Practices

Facilitating the separate and more frequent collection of recyclables, along with creative communications and enforcement strategies, represents a key step in helping to reduce both contaminations and improve the quality of recyclable materials. In addition, supporting steps can be facilitated in the form of restricted apertures on bin units, clear signage and convenient accessibility to recycling stations in communal settings. Signage can be considered a particularly influential component, with many local authorities engaging in this approach.

Some local councils favour the use of smaller wheelie bins to limit the volume of recyclables contaminated at any given time. While this approach consumes significantly less efficiency, larger containers present a much more viable alternative. Placing them in dedicated housings with restricted apertures and clear signage will still accommodate significant volumes of material, but also better contribute to the prevention of contaminated recyclables.

In consideration, the metroSTOR range of external bin stores has been designed to facilitate the separation of quality recyclables, prioritising a range of options for dedicated signage and aperture.