What happens to our recycling once it leaves our bins???

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

Only 4 years ago we as a nation generated 222.9 MILLION TONNES of waste.

England was responsible for 85% of that total. So, England produces MORE waste than Scotland and Wales COMBINED!!!

Construction and demolition generates the most - about 136 million tonnes a year. Mineral waste accounts for 36% of the total and includes anything that's left over from mining or quarrying, and can't be used again.

Household waste makes up 27.3 MILLION tonnes of what we throw away!!! That's equivalent to 409kg PER PERSON, roughly the weight of 4 adult giant pandas.

Much of it could be avoided. A study by the University of Sussex found that the average family in the UK throws away 20% of all the food they buy, costing up to £800 a year.

So, when it leaves our bins, where does it go?

Of the 26m tonnes of waste produced in the UK, 12m tonnes are recycled, and 14m tonnes are sent to landfill sites. This gives us an average recycling rate of 45%.

Well, most waste goes on quite a journey after it’s thrown into the nearest bin; later returning to our homes as recycled products. From the roadside our rubbish is collected by teams of local refuse collectors and taken to recycling plants across the country.

These recycling plants, or MRF stations contain the machinery necessary to organise the rubbish into distinct categories. Making use of Picking Stations and Trommel screens, waste can be separated and sent to its corresponding destination.

Garden and some food wastes can be sent to composting stations where it can be used by farmers to help with the growing of crops, or even sold as bagged compost in supermarkets and garden centres.

Some waste can be used in the production of energy. Waste-to-Energy plants make use of combustible materials to produce electricity that powers homes.

Plastics, metals, E-waste, glass and paper will be organised at recycling centres where they are turned back into raw materials and sent to their corresponding facility. When they arrive at these Manufacturing Facilities the raw materials will be used to create everyday products; plastic bottles, newspapers, tin cans etc.

From there the finished products will be sent to stores across the country to be purchased once again by customers and find their way back into our homes.

This process is much more economical and eco-friendly than producing new materials each time. Material processing equipment helps us re-use a large amount of materials that would otherwise end up at landfill, and with taxes on landfill increasing, recycling will soon be the cheaper option for most people.


These facts might make you think twice about what you throw away:

  • Recycling a single aluminium can will save enough energy to power a TV for up to three hours or an iPod for up to twenty hours.

  • Recycling everything you could in your kitchen recycling bins could power a TV for six months, plenty of time to watch Netflix!

  • Recycling a single glass bottle will save enough energy to power a laptop for half an hour.

  • Recycling a single plastic bottle will save enough energy to power a lightbulb for three hours or more.

  • Recycling five plastic bottles creates enough insulating fibre to fill a ski jacket.

  • It takes 70% less energy to recycle paper than it does to make it new from raw materials.

  • UK households create 7m tonnes of food waste each year, that’s a kilo of food for every person on the plant.

  • This equates to £7.5billion pounds worth of food waste.

  • It is believed that 50% of all food waste is still edible, and could be ‘recycled’ through food banks, charities, and making animal feed.

  • It takes a hundred buckets of water to create just one loaf of bread and six buckets of water to grow one potato.

  • 50% of the food waste we throw in the bin could be composted.

  • As much as 80% of the things we throw away could be recycled.

  • Even cars can be recycled, with up to 80% of the vehicle being reused.

  • More than 15% of the money we spend on products pays for packaging – most of which ends up in the dustbin.

  • It is estimated that we throw away over 600m batteries in the UK each year.

  • Only 27% of batteries are recycled in the UK, resulting in more than 20,000 tonnes of battery waste straight to the landfill.

  • It takes fifty times more energy to make a battery than the finished product produces.

  • In the UK, we disposal of around 80 million fluorescent tubes each year. If we were to recycle those tubes, we could reuse up to 4 tonnes of mercury – a natural resource.

  • Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is the fastest growing waste stream in the UK.

  • According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 25% of our WEEE waste could be repaired and re-used.

  • Most of the two million TV sets discarded each year end up in UK landfill sites, despite being accepted at many recycling centres across the country.

In England, the amount of waste sent for incineration has been increasing, up from 10.1 to 10.8 million tonnes in 2017-18.


Roughly two-thirds of plastic waste in the UK is sent overseas to be recycled - in part, to reduce costs.

BBC analysis suggests the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging to other countries in the year to October 2018.

Until January 2018, China imported most of the world's plastic waste.

But due to concerns about contamination and pollution, it announced it would no longer buy recycled plastic scrap that was not 99.5% pure.

The amount of the UK's plastic taken by China dropped by 94% between 2016-17 and 2017-18.

Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia picked up some of the slack.

Malaysia imported 105,000 tonnes in total and was way out in front. That total was 42,000 (68%) more in 2017-18 compared with the previous year.

However, in recent months, Malaysia has also pushed back. The country's environment minister Yeo Bee Yin said that it will not be "a dumping ground to the world".

Malaysia has also said it would send back 3,000 tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste to countries including the US, UK, Canada and Australia. It said the contaminated waste was smuggled in on its way to illegal processing facilities in the country.

Sustainability charity Wrap has previously suggested that the increase in UK incineration rates is down to more plastic being burnt, rather than being sent abroad after China's ban.

A huge amount of metal and paper is also sent overseas to be recycled.

In 2018, 9.5 million tonnes of metal and 4.5 million tonnes of paper were exported, according to HM Revenue & Customs.


Recycling and how to cut down on single-use plastic has become a hot topic of conversation in recent years.

A few tips include:

  • Use an online recycling locator tool to find out what you can and cannot recycle in your area

  • Carry small reusable shopping bags or plastic containers

  • Keep your recycling bin next to the main bin so you can take both out at the same time

Food is also a significant contributor to household waste. Wrap estimates that household food waste makes up 70% of the UK total.

Planning meals, freezing food and being careful not to over-buy in the shops can all help tackle food waste.

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