When we chuck a rinsed milk bottle or used paper envelope into the recycling bin, we hope we’ve done our bit. But sadly, that’s not always the case — recycling isn’t quite the panacea many of us think and hope it is.

Because recycling can be cost and energy-intensive, as well as easily contaminated (with food and drink) a lot of it actually ends up in landfill, being incinerated or even being shipped abroad.

And that’s costly to the environment. Aside from the carbon footprint everything we buy, consume and then discard, when something is buried in landfill it creates methane (a so-called greenhouse gas) as it decomposes, and also leaches toxins into the environment.


Abigail Butcher has done some digging into why recycling is tricky but also — despite the problems — why it’s still worth doing.

Recycling plastic

plastic bottles

In 2019 a crazy 368 million metric tonnes of plastic was used around the world — but plastic is one of the hardest to recycle. Different plastics are made up of different types of polymer, often all in one product — think of a milk bottle with its sticky label, lid and top — all of which will melt at different temperatures. Only certain types of plastic can be recycled and unlike metal, glass and paper, plastic can’t be recycled multiple times.

Separating different plastics is time-consuming, costly and difficult — machines struggle to recognise black plastic food trays, for example. Add to this the cost of energy and chemicals involved in the process and “virgin” plastics still work out easier and cheaper to produce — but they take 500 years to decompose.

Only 45% of plastic used in the UK is actually recycled and of that, only about 10-12% of it is recycled here. Instead it is incinerated or sent abroad for recycling where it risk being illegally dumped (and blowing into rivers and seas) or burned.

Why it’s worth the effort to recycle plastic: Recycled plastic doesn’t just mean another plastic bottle, it can be transformed into something more durable — from a rug to a bag, carpet to building materials, outdoor furniture and even insulation. Recycling just five plastic PET bottles creates enough insulating fibre to fill a ski jacket and 34 to make one square yard of polyester, the main fibre used in skiwear. EcoSki stocks a number of brands that use recycled PET in their clothing and while we fully support this method of production at present, there are limitations (it is hard to recycle again, for example). And of course we don’t want to give the water bottle companies an excuse to make even more single use bottles.


Recycling paper

waste paper

We’re doing well in the UK — about 80% of the paper we use is recycled, great news because a single piece of paper can be reprocessed up to seven times. Paper is first sorted into different types and grades — things like corrugated cardboard is recycled into low-grade paper for egg cartons and brown bags, whereas high-grade writing and printer paper and card is made from recycling similar high-quality paper.

After sorting, paper is washed with chemicals and water to remove glue, ink and other contaminants (the leftover sludge from washing is buried in landfill or burned for energy) before being mixed with water and turned into a pulp that is pressed, dried and rolled into big, thin ‘new’ sheets of paper.

Paper is very easily contaminated (with fluids and food) and certain types of paper can’t be recycled — if it’s been coated in wax (coffee cups), plastic or foil (think wrapping paper and Christmas cards).

Why it’s worth the effort to recycle paper: the paper recycling process takes far smaller a toll on the environment, needing 70% less energy than cutting down a tree and making it from scratch.


Recycling glass

Glass will not decompose but sits in the ground forever — despite being ideal for recycling. It crushes down into a granular material called cullet, less of which is needed to make new glass than the raw materials for ‘virgin’ glass which is made from limestone, sand and soda ash (all of which are mined).

So why are there problems with glass recycling? It’s fragile and needs sorting. As well as food and drink, broken glass is a contaminant and, like plastic, there are different grades of glass — window panes, decorative drinking and kitchen glass and jars and bottles. When these are mingled in the recycling bin it sadly means whole loads end up in landfill.

Why it’s worth the effort to recycle glass: Glass has the potential to be entirely recyclable. As well as making new bottles, jars, glasses and window panes, recycled glass can also be used as a replacement for building materials — including natural aggregate and cement. We just need to recycle glass properly and increase UK’s current rate of recycling 50% of all the glass we use.


Recycling metal

tin cans

If you have to buy a takeaway drink, choose a can over glass because aluminium (which 90% of all drinks cans in the UK are made from) is the world’s most recyclable material — using a process that draws 95% less energy than making new cans and produces 90% less carbon emissions. It’s simply sorted, shredded, melted and solidified again — the same goes for steel.

But sadly, around £36million worth of aluminium is still sent to landfill each year. Why?

Because Brits don’t recycle enough, and when we do it is contaminated and needs sorting, which is costly.

Did you know that most aluminium cans are lined with plastic to guard against contamination (protect the beverage from the can and vice versa)? This doesn’t affect the can’s ability to be recycled as the plastic liner is simply burnt off during the process — but it’s another example of sneaky single-use plastic.

Why it’s worth the effort to recycle metal: Recycling a single aluminium can will save enough energy to power a TV for up to three hours or an iPod for up to 20 hours. It’s also convenient: scrap metal dealers will collect old steel from you — things like washing machines and light fittings— and you can get money for old copper. Recycling one tonne of aluminium saves the carbon dioxide emissions of driving nearly 27,000 miles.


Recycling textiles

used clothing bales

Globally, just 12% of the material used for clothing ends up being recycled — a scary fact. While 57% of Brits recycle textiles, 41% of people don’t know you can — not helped by the fact that few UK councils offer textile kerbside collection. Sadly, 350,000 tonnes (£140million-worth) of used but still wearable clothing goes to landfill every year in the UK but — there are other options beyond the charity shop and landfill. The problem is that the complexity of the fabrics we wear makes them hard to recycle — if synthetic labels and sewing threads must be stripped from a simple cotton t-shirt, think how many components go into a ski jacket with its zips, buttons and different materials inside and out. Again, sorting textiles is labour-intensive, slow and expensive.

Why it’s worth the effort to recycle your worn out clothes: Mono fibres are much easier to recycle than mixed blends — which applies to both man-made and natural fibres — but mixed fibres can still be reused. Natural (mono) fibres will biodegrade so can be composted or repurposed (eg wool jumpers turned into carpets) and other, blended fibres can be “downcycled” into building materials — such as noise insulation. EcoSki was born out of a desire to reduce the amount of ski wear going into landfill, extending the life of this hard-wearing ski kit by repairing and re-selling preloved gear. If there’s no option but ‘the bin’ for used clothing it can be repurposed and EcoSki is proud to offer end-of-life solutions through our work with the Avena Group. Nothing is sent to landfill — textiles are shredded and then either added to composting systems if they will naturally biodegrade (such as cotton, wool and cellulose — see our story on fabrics) or synthetic fibres are converted into raw materials for dozens of new uses from seat padding in cars to stuffing toys to sound-proofing pane