Christian M. 8 min read

How materials are recycled in the UK

For us, it’s clear that advancements in commercial recycling technology are what will make the difference in reaching zero waste as soon as possible. Up-and-coming developments are promising, but how does it compare with what we currently have for each specific recyclable stream?

In this article, we give an overview of how recycling works for each type of recycling in the UK and explain the latest technological advancements for each.

Contents


Glass recycling

Glass cullet
Glass cullet (pictured) is produced after glass is sorted by colour and crushed into small fragments (Source: Glass International)

Approximate cost: £30 – £100 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 70%

Pros: Glass can be infinitely recycled without losing quality, making it a highly sustainable material for recycling.

Cons: The process is energy-intensive due to the high melting temperature required for glass. It requires careful sorting by colour and thorough decontamination to ensure purity.

The recycling process

Glass is directly collected from business premises or, in some cases, waste collection sites. Note that broken glass and pyrex are not allowed within this waste stream; see more details on our commercial glass recycling page.

At the facility, glass bottles and other containers are sorted, cleaned, and crushed into cullets (crushed glass). Sometimes, another sorting round is done to ensure the purity of the glass before it is melted and reshaped into new products such as glass bottles, containers, and windows.

Since the most costly processes of glass recycling are collection, sorting and melting, these are the technologies that would most likely have  the highest impact:

Emerging technologies:

💡 Rapid turnaround: The closed-loop recycling system in the UK allows for glass bottles and jars to be recycled back into new bottles and jars in as little as 30 days.

Source: Britglass


Plastic recycling

Plastic bottles
Plastic bottles can be produced from recycled plastics.

Approximate cost: £100 – £400 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 45 – 50%

Pros: Recycling processes for plastics like PET and HDPE are well-established and effective.

Cons: There are many types and composites that cannot be economically recycled. Those that do often suffer from quality degradation over multiple recycling cycles. Contamination also remains a significant challenge.

The recycling process

The wide variety of both recyclable and non-recyclable plastics in use makes this group of materials one of the most difficult items to recycle.

The lack of consistent labelling, the complexity of plastic types, and high contamination rates, particularly from extensive use in the food industry, all contribute to the difficulties.

Once recyclable plastics are separated and cleaned, the recycling process involves shredding them into small pieces, re-separating them based on density, and then melting and pelletising them to serve as raw materials for the manufacturing of new plastic products.

Since the main blockers for plastics are their lack of recyclability and contamination, the following technologies will have the most impact:

Emerging technologies


Cardboard and paper recycling

paper_pulp_microscope
The structure of paper and cardboard pulp as seen under a microscope (Credit: Wikipedia).

Approximate cost: £50 – £150 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 70 – 80%.

Pros: Cardboard recycling boasts high rates and is relatively energy and resource-efficient compared to producing new material from virgin resources.

Cons: The quality of recycled cardboard can degrade with each recycling cycle, and the process requires significant water usage. Contaminants like oils and grease can pose challenges.

The recycling process

The current cardboard recycling process is straightforward and even lucrative for some businesses that generate large enough volumes. Cardboard and paper are collected from businesses, taken to recycling facilities where they are shredded and pulped with water to create new paper-based products.

For a detailed overview, visit our commercial cardboard recycling page.

Emerging technologies

💡 Enzymatic De-inking: The use of enzymes is being explored as a method for the de-inking process, offering a way to break down ink particles without damaging the paper fibres.


Metal recycling

metal_recycling_furnace
Shredded metals are re-melted to make ingots or sheets.

Approximate cost: £50 – £200 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 70-75%.

Pros: Metals have a high market value and are infinitely recyclable without quality loss, contributing to the reduction of mineral resource extraction (mining).

Cons: The recycling process is energy-intensive and requires efficient sorting to separate different types of metals.

The recycling process

The UK boasts a well-established metal recycling industry, encompassing a wide range of activities from collection and sorting to processing and manufacturing new products from recycled metals.

Metal recyclables can be categorised into ferrous and non-ferrous:

  • Ferrous waste: Includes end-of-life vehicle construction and demolition waste, household appliances, and industrial scrap.
  • Non-ferrous waste: Items include cans, foils, copper wires, pipes and electronics, brass, zinc and lead.

Once collected, these materials are separated, cleaned, shredded, and then melted into ingots, sheets, or other specified shapes for reuse in manufacturing. The high cost of melting and the requirement for expensive sorting make these the most important tech developments:

Emerging technologies

💡 Energy Savings: Recycling metal saves a significant amount of energy compared to producing metal from virgin ore. For example, recycling aluminium recycling saves up to 95% of the energy required to produce it from raw materials, while recycling steel saves around 70% of the energy.


Organic waste recycling

compost
Composting is the easiest way to reuse the garden and certain food wastes.

Approximate cost: £50 – £150 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 40-50%.

Pros: Reduces landfill use and produces high-value compost and biogas; the process is relatively simple.

Cons: Requires space and can emit odours if not managed properly. Biogas is flammable and requires specialised storage containers.

The recycling process

Recycling of organic waste involves anaerobic digestion and composting of food waste and garden waste. While these are widely distinct approaches, they are both based on the natural decomposition of carbon-based matter.

As a result, technology that affects segregation and collection at source is the most suitable. The vast majority of organic waste remains unrecycled.

Emerging technologies

💡 Anaerobic digestion growth: The anaerobic digestion industry in the UK has experienced rapid growth, with the number of operational plants increasing from around 50 in 2005 to over 600 by 2020.


Electronic waste recycling

Electronic_waste
Electronic waste requires manual sorting (Credit: Wikipedia)

Approximate cost: £400 – £800 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 45-55%

Pros: Recovers valuable materials and reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills.

Cons: The process is labour-intensive and involves handling hazardous materials.

The recycling process

Electronic waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the UK, and there is a lack of recycling infrastructure. The process is problematic, requires extensive manual sorting and involves handling hazardous materials.

It is arguably the recycling stream in most dire need of technological innovation to enhance its capabilities, especially considering that the UK exports much of its commercial electronic waste abroad.

Emerging technologies

💡 Growing volume: The UK generates around 1.5 million tonnes of WEEE each year, one of the highest amounts in Europe. This includes a wide range of items, from large household appliances to IT equipment and mobile phones.


Textile recycling

charity_shop
Although technically not ‘recycling’, donations to charity shops are the predominant way to avoid textiles in landfill.

Approximate cost: £200 – £500 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 15-20%

Pros: Reduces landfill waste and has the potential for creating high-quality recycled products.

Cons: The prevalence of low-quality materials in ‘fast fashion’, mixed-material textiles, complex sorting requirements, and quality degradation over time.

The recycling process

Clothes donations to charity shops often make up the largest proportion of textile recycling (although it’s technically re-using). The rest involves breaking down clothes into new materials or downcycling them into industrial rags.

Mechanical or chemical textile recycling into raw materials for new clothes is very difficult because most textiles are made of mixed materials, which are very difficult to separate and have multiple contaminants like buttons and zippers.

The largest impact in textile recycling involves improving the transparency of the clothing supply chain to ensure improvements in EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) take place,

Emerging technologies


Battery recycling

battery
Batteries often contain hazardous chemistry and require careful handling.

Approximate cost: £1,000 – £3,000 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 45%

Pros: Recovers valuable metals and reduces hazardous waste.

Cons: Requires specialised facilities due to the technical complexity of recycling, the rapid development of battery technology, and the high cost associated with some battery types.

The recycling process

Battery technology is one of the fastest developing sectors, but this also leads to a proliferation of chemistries and designs that complicate the recycling process. Batteries contain valuable materials like metals, and their recovery can reduce the demand for virgin ore.

The lack of infrastructure, the presence of hazardous substances, and the constantly evolving nature of battery technology make recycling a challenging task despite the numerous benefits it offers.

Emerging technologies


Tyre recycling

tyre-recycling
The vast majority of end-of-life tyres in the UK are recycled.

Approximate cost: £100 – £200 per tonne.

Approximate recycling rate: 95%

Pros: Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and has versatile applications for recycled materials.

Cons: Recycling is limited to certain product markets, and there are challenges in processing tyres.

The recycling process

The vast majority of end-of-life tyre waste in the UK is recycled, partly because most tyres can be collected from specific locations such as garages, tyre dealerships, and waste collection sites.

Once at the recycling facility, the tyres are shredded, and magnetic separators are used to separate steel wires and fibres from the rubber. This process results in various downcycled materials, such as rubber mulch, rubber crumb, and rubber fuel.

Despite this relative success, there are technological innovations that could further improve the environmental footprint of tyre recycling:

Emerging technologies

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