The 12 everyday items tripping up the nation’s recycling efforts

  • New research from DS Smith shows over a third (36%) of UK consumers don’t believe that their recycling has an impact on the environment.
  • The company exposes the ‘Dirty Dozen’ – the top 12 items that are being put into mixed or paper recycling streams recycling streams but are harder to recycle due to plastic and food contamination. The most commonly recycled culprits include junk mail, food trays and pulp fruit trays.
  • This ‘dirty dozen’ is resulting in an average of 391 million bin bags worth of plastic waste being collected from one paper mill alone every year.

New research from sustainable packaging company DS Smith reveals that despite their best intentions, over a third (36%) of people in the UK don’t believe that their recycling efforts have an impact the environment.

The company, which recycles up to a third of all paper in the UK, found that that almost half (48%) of consumers don’t think that packaging in the UK is easily recyclable, with two thirds (67%) saying that there is a lot of conflicting advice on recycling and a similar number (60%) saying that the disposal instructions on items are hard to find.

Analysis from Kemsley mill, the largest mill for recycled paper in the UK, has revealed its ‘Dirty Dozen’ – the top 12 items that are harder to recycle when put into mixed or paper recycling streams. According to the research, conducted in partnership with YouGov, the most common Dirty Dozen items put in the recycling bin are junk mail (72%), food trays (38%) and pulp fruit trays (28%) – with soup cartons (21%) and crisp tubes (18%) also making an appearance.

Rogier Gerritsen, Managing Director at DS Smith Recycling said: “While many people are doing their best to recycle commonly used items, the problem starts way before then in how a product is made. Our Circular Design Principles ensure that recyclability is built in at the start of the process, not at the end.

“By designing packaging which reduces the number of different components used and contains labelling that is easier for customers to understand, we increase the quality of the recyclable products and reduce the current volume of materials that are rejected. We are working with our customers and others in the industry to help achieve this so that we can create a truly circular economy.”

Unveiled, the full ‘Dirty Dozen’ are the top 12 items that are cause for concern when put into recycling streams and the reasons why:

  Item Reason
1 Junk Mail Plastic windows and the glue on junk mail create problems for mills as they are difficult to recycle.
2 Food trays Cardboard food trays that you can put straight in the oven often contain lamination which makes them difficult to break down in the paper making process.

They are also often contaminated with food, which is not permitted for recycling.

3 Pulp fruit trays (e.g. Apple trays) Pulp trays often contain low-quality weak fibres which means that they are not strong enough to be made into other paper packaging products.
4 Food cartons (e.g. soup) The plastic layer which coats cardboard is difficult to break down and clings to the cardboard, reducing its ability to be recycled
5 Crisp Tubes Crisp tubes, otherwise known as composite packaging, contain over 50% of non-paper materials which are unable to be recycled at paper mills.
6 Glittery gift wrap and greetings cards While Christmas may be behind us, any gift wrap and cards which are wrapped in plastic or contain glitter or metal can cause damage to recycling machinery.
7 Padded envelopes The high volume of plastic which features in padded envelopes makes it difficult to separate the cardboard and plastic elements.
8 Sandwich wrappers The plastic lamination on sandwich packaging (up to 20% of the wrapper) makes it difficult to separate the cardboard and plastic elements. Food contamination also means the quality of the recyclable materials is lessened.
9 Insulated food delivery packaging While it may preserve your food, the waterproof fibre packaging takes longer to break down. They also contain plastic thermal layers which causes contamination issues at the mills.
10 Coffee bags / pouches The metal coatings on coffee bags can break into glitter-like parts which causes contamination in finished paper.
11 Wax / silicone papers

(e.g. Butter wrappers)

The wax and silicone coatings make it difficult for paper machines to access the recyclable fibres and the ones which are retrieved are often low quality as a result.
12 Fast food soft drink cups Fast food drinks cups can often be double laminated making it even more difficult for this to be broken down and the recyclable fibres to be retrieved.

The environmental cost of contamination

Plastic and other contamination can cause significant challenges at paper mills, adding additional costs and waste into paper making. There is also a significant environmental impact, with large volumes of plastic ending up in paper recycling streams – in 2021 alone, the equivalent of 391 million bin bags of plastic contamination was collected at Kemsley Mill which can end up being burnt or landfilled if other recycling options cannot be found.

To help improve the quality of recycling in the UK, 50% of consumers said they would like to see clearer labelling on products in stores, one in two (49%) would like more fibre-based (cardboard/ paper) packaging options on supermarket shelves and 40% would rather use multiple bins for different types of rubbish if it meant that more of their items could be recycled.

A more sustainable solution

DS Smith is working with the packaging supply chain, from policy makers and Local Authorities and brands, to provide a range of solutions to tackle the issue of hard to recycle packaging products. To date it has removed 170 million problem plastics from supermarket shelves, online retailers, and industry through the creation of 1,000 wholly recyclable fibre-based packaging solutions – covering everything from wine boxes and ready-meal trays to shrink wrap and fresh fruit punnets. DS Smith’s R&D team is also exploring barrier technology development and innovation to replace packaging solutions and applications that contain hard-to-recycle plastics.

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