A clear plastic bottle being recycled

84% of UK households are unintentionally contaminating their recycling bins

16 October 2022

Data released for Recycle Week 2022 reveals that we are a nation of ‘wish cyclers’, spurring Recycle Now to call on the public to come together and ‘get real’ about recycling

  • 84% of households are contaminating their recycling through well-intended ‘wish cycling’.
  • People age 55+ are the most clued up when it comes to recycling, with Gen Z the most confused.
  • Glass is the number one contaminate with many households mistakenly adding old/broken drinking glasses to their recycling.
  • Recycle Now urges people to ‘get real’ about recycling and use their handy Recycling Locator tool.

Sunday 16th October, 2022: New public insights released by Recycle Now – part of climate action NGO, WRAP have found that we are a nation of wish cyclers**, with the vast majority of well-intentioned households trying to recycle items that should not go in the recycling bin, in an effort to do their bit. Contaminants affect the quality of the recycling, its value and in extreme cases mean that the recycling has to be disposed of rather than recycled.

In response, this year’s Recycle Week 2022 (17th – 23rd October 2022) is themed ‘Let's Get Real’. Recycle Now are targeting contamination to improve recycling behaviours, whilst busting myths around recycling. The campaign acknowledges that we all have busy lives and can easily put the wrong thing in the wrong bin. However, by coming together this Recycle Week and committing to change our habits, we can make a real difference. 

The new insights from Recycle Now* – captured from over 3,000 people living across the UK - have found that over four fifths (84%) of well-intentioned households are putting one or more ‘contaminator’ items in the recycling, when they actually can’t be recycled from home.

Helen Bird, Recycling Expert at Recycle Now, says:Our Recycling Tracker shows that, although many of us are trying our best when it comes to recycling, there’s still room to grow. We’re a nation of real people, with real lives that sometimes get in the way.

Recycling doesn’t have to be confusing, which is why, this Recycle Week, we’re asking people to type their postcode into our Recycling Locator, to find out what to recycle where they live.

We save 18 million tonnes of CO2 every year by recycling – the same environmental impact as taking 12 million cars off the road – so let’s keep up the good work, and ‘get real’ this Recycle Week!”

The biggest contaminator is drinking glasses, with a third (33%) of UK households mistakenly adding these to their recycling. This is closely followed by foil pouches (29%) and toothpaste tubes (26%) – which over a quarter of households mistakenly put in the recycling.

UK top ten contaminants:

  1. Drinking glasses (33%)
  2. Foil pouches (29%)
  3. Toothpaste tubes (26%)
  4. Plastic film lids (24%)
  5. Tissues & Paper towels (22%)
  6. Glass cookware (22%)
  7. Plastic film (20%)
  8. Cartons (19%)
  9. Plastic toys (18%)
  10. Frozen veg bags (18%)

When too many contaminated items are collected, it can stop whole lorry loads of material from being recycled. If every household in the UK contaminates their recycling with a standard drinking glass, it’s enough to fill over 363 refuse lorries! But if we recycle right, we can have a huge positive impact on the environment.

The public survey has been released alongside other initiatives taking place during Recycle Week 2022 including: the installation of a giant scannable QR code, made of recyclable materials, in Birmingham New Street station, unveiled by environment enthusiast and Recycle Week supporter, Mark Foster; landmark buildings going green across the UK; and a campaign film featuring the real faces of recycling. 

As well as revealing the nation’s top recycling contaminants, Recycle Now’s insights found that four fifths (80%) of UK households are missing out on recycling everyday items from all over the house.

Glass perfume and aftershave bottles are the most missed item, with over half (52%) of UK households not putting these in the recycling bin. Other items which are often missed include foil (27%), aerosols (22%) and plastic food trays (14%).**

When looking at the generations, surprisingly the survey found that Gen Z and Millennials put 6-7 recyclable items in the wrong bin, whereas those aged 55 dispose of 4-5 items incorrectly.

The top ranked reason across all age groups was; ‘I’m not sure if some items can be recycled or not’. However, there’s an easy way to avoid this uncertainty – Recycle Now’s Recycling Locator tool can tell you exactly what can be recycled in your area.

Environment Minister, Trudy Harrison, said: “Recycling and reusing more of our waste is such an important part of protecting the environment, but it is vital that we get it right so we don't inadvertently consign recyclables to landfill through contamination.

“We are pressing ahead with our plans for consistent recycling collections so the same materials are collected from every household and business in England, making it easier for people to get bin day right.”

For the third year running, major brands are putting their support behind Recycle Week by sponsoring to help fund it including Arla Foods, Biffa, British Soft Drinks Association, Coca-Cola, Danone, innocent drinks, McDonald’s, The Natural Source Waters Association, Britvic, PepsiCo and Ocado.

Recycling doesn’t have to be confusing. Find out more about what you can and can’t recycle, by typing your postcode into Recycle Now’s trusty Recycling Locator: www.recyclenow.com/recycle-week-2022

Notes to Editor

‘Wish cycling’ is the practice of recycling items that cannot be recycled. It stems from the best intentions.

About the data:

*Fieldwork for Recycling Locator: 16 March – 06 April 2022. Initial UK Sample of 4,027 interviews. Data matched with LARSU database sample: 3,196

**The top 10 list of items which UK households are not recycling properly, as revealed by the data, includes:

  1. Glass perfume / aftershave bottles (52%)
  2. Foil (27%)
  3. Aerosols (22%)
  4. Plastic trays (14%)
  5. Plastic cleaning bottles (11%)
  6. Plastic pots (10%)
  7. Plastic toiletries/shampoo bottles (10%)
  8. Cartons (9%)
  9. Food cans/tins (8%)
  10. Drink cans (6%)

Overall, a third (34%) of the households are incorrectly disposing of five or more items, and almost one fifth (17%) are disposing of 10 or more items incorrectly.

About WRAP:

  • WRAP is a climate action NGO working around the globe to tackle the causes of the climate crisis and give the planet a sustainable future. Our vision is a thriving world in which climate change is no longer a problem. We believe that our natural resources should not be wasted and that everything we use should be re-used and recycled. We bring together and work with governments, businesses and individuals to ensure that the world’s natural resources are used more sustainably. Our core purpose is to help tackle climate change and protect our planet by changing the way things are produced, consumed and disposed of.
  • Our work includes: UK Plastics PactCourtauld Commitment 2030Textiles 2030 and the citizen campaigns Love Food Hate WasteLove Your ClothesClear on Plastics and Recycle Now. We run Food Waste Action Week and Recycle Week.

About Recycle Week:

  • First staged in 2004, Recycle Week is now the UK’s largest national annual recycling campaign. It’s a week where citizens, media, local governments, and brands come together to meet one goal; to galvanise everyone into recycling more of the right things, more often. www.recyclenow.com/RecycleWeek

About Recycle Now:

  • An established brand, Recycle Now encourages and motivates citizens to recycle more things, more often, from around the home. Using ground-breaking, robust insights and behaviour change theory, we develop interventions and campaigns to motivate citizens to change their behaviour.

Recycle Now Sponsors

  • Major brands putting their support behind Recycle Week by sponsoring to help fund it include Arla Foods, Biffa, British Soft Drinks Association, Coca-Cola, Danone, innocent drinks, McDonald’s, The Natural Source Waters Association, Britvic, PepsiCo and Ocado.