Five unexpected things you can recycle at home – and 10 mistakes you’re making

Recycling rules
Recycling rules

It’s simple stuff, in theory: separate your waste from your recyclables, dump the latter in the appropriate bin and say no more about it.

Yet UK households are apparently so bewildered by green guidelines that ministers are overhauling the system, with new proposals set to put an end to “wishcycling” (a term used to denote the many things people mistakenly believe can be recycled, but can’t).

These mistakes currently lead to a fifth of wrongly recycled items being sent to landfill. And, worse still, this ends up causing more damage than throwing them out in the first place, as they contaminate the correctly recycled items alongside them. (Not to mention the domestic fallout over whether the strawberry punnet film lid or milk cartons were green bin-worthy in the first place...)

The goal now is for “people to recycle less, better,” says James Piper, author of The Rubbish Book. This echoes the Government’s new edict, with the hope being that this will reduce the rather staggering 84 per cent of households currently committing recycling crimes.

Mistakes currently lead to a fifth of wrongly recycled items being sent to landfill - Getty
Mistakes currently lead to a fifth of wrongly recycled items being sent to landfill - Getty

Plans are thought to include more consistent collections, as well as a labyrinthine seven recycling bins being introduced, at a cost of half a billion pounds annually until 2030. “I think people have a tendency to hope something can be recycled, rather than what actually can be recycled,” Piper says.

As such, the effect of recycling can be “limited by the fact that many materials are degraded through recycling, so there are diminishing returns,” agrees Finn Arne Jørgenson, professor of environmental history at the University of Stavanger, and author of Recycling, adding that “the mental effect can be more significant than the material one.”

Here are the most common mistakes to avoid – and the recyclables at home that you might be missing.

Five things you can recycle (but are probably missing)

Used foil

Detritus from your packed lunch is perfectly recyclable – provided it’s clean, and passes the scrunch test (squeeze it in your hand; if it remains balled up, it’s recyclable; if it springs back to its original position, it’s film, and isn’t).

Though crisp packets look like foil, they are in fact metallised plastic film, so either need to be sent off through a specialised scheme like Terracycle, or put in the regular waste.

Envelopes with windows

The plastic film will be processed separately at the recycling plant, so the whole caboodle can go in.


Collection may be dependent on your council, but many accept aerosols (if the recyclable components are correctly separated) or plastic kinds (if the roll-on ball is removed).

According to the Waste Resources & Action Programme (WRAP), “if everyone in the UK recycled one empty can of air freshener, enough energy could be saved to run a TV in 273,000 homes for a year.”


Empty the bottle (extra weight may cause it to be separated incorrectly at the plant), clean it out, reattach the lid and you’re good to go.

Pizza boxes

The recyclability of your takeaway hinges wholly on one thing: grease. If your margherita has left a circular oil slick behind, that part of the pizza box is no good – but the rest of it may be usable, says Piper, describing himself as “the sad guy who might cut around the grease.”

The top of the box, at the very least, tends to be salvageable.

...And the 10 things you can’t (or at least need to be careful about where you do it)

Paper plates

They seem such an obvious win: no washing up, and eco-friendly to boot. But “if food or liquids get onto paper or cardboard, it makes it dirty or soggy and then it is unlikely to be able to be recycled and turned into new paper,” explains Ali Moore, head of communications and behaviour change at ReLondon.

When recycling arrives at a plant, it is typically subject to a visual inspection first – and if overly contaminated, “they might reject the whole load.

This means that, instead of being recycled, it will all go either to landfill or to be incinerated, and this is a waste of everyone’s efforts, as well as costing the council much more to process than recycling does.”


The short fibres that tissues are made from mean they’re not high enough quality to be recycled. A handkerchief – especially if hand washed – is a greener alternative.

Toothpaste tubes

Unless you’re willing to cut your Colgate open and scrub its insides, the remnants will sully the plastic that could have otherwise been reused.

Fruit punnet film

“People particularly get confused about all the different types of plastic,” says Moore, with the clear film “lids” on fruit punnets and soft plastic bread bags rife for mixing up with the harder kind, such as the punnets themselves, or even plastic pens and coat-hangers.

Not all of these can be recycled, less still in the same way, so avoid a “very complicated” guessing game by using the finder tool on websites including London Recycles and WRAP.


Billions of paper receipts are printed in the UK each year – but most use thermal paper, which is coated with bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS), and can’t be recycled.

Baking paper

Black bin only, in spite of appearances. Some recycling websites suggest using glass trays instead, to cut down on waste.

Takeaway coffee cups

Many chains now allow takeaway cups to be dropped off in-store (even if they weren’t purchased there), as these can’t be recycled at home. Some also offer discounted coffee when you bring in your own reusable cup instead.

Broken glass

“If a drinking glass breaks, that’s got a different melting point to glass bottles, so can’t be recycled,” Piper explains. Ditto shattered light bulbs, cracked reading glasses and broken picture frames.

The average consumer likely doesn’t realise, he adds, that differences in the strength of glass mean it can’t be recycled (where it is melted down) in the same way, thus contaminating the correctly sorted stuff.

Check the labelling, if you’re unsure, but as a rule of thumb glass bottles (from wine or Coke, say) are the safest bets.

Wine corks

If chopped into small pieces, corks can be used as plant mulch, or added to home composting. Otherwise, they need to be sent to specialist recycling schemes (such as Recorked UK).

Pet food pouches

The advent of sleek pouches for pet and baby food, washing machine tablets, coffee and protein powder look good – but can’t be put in home recycling.

Terracycle also recycles these: grab an old box, collect what you have and print a free label to send them where they need to go.