What really happens to your household waste?
We’re often bombarded with labelling instructions about recycling that aren’t clear and it creates confusion about what goes in what bin. Even with the UK's mixed recycling approach (one recycling bin to rule them all!), it’s still difficult to know what we should be throwing away.
Worse, is that beneath the complex web of the waste management business, are a bunch of incentives that mean even your hard work separating and rinsing items of rubbish might come to nothing with your items being incinerated or falling off a ship somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.
Understanding what happens to your household waste really does make you realise the importance of reusing and reducing waste, not just living in hope that we’re fine because we recycle.
That's why at GRASP we're thinking more about creating products that are durable than what to do about disposing of them.
What is household waste?
Household waste is only 10-15% of the total waste products we produce in the UK. Construction is the big contributor with over 60% of waste coming from building and demolition work.
But while there might be little we can do to influence construction or commercial waste, that 10-15% of household waste is the subject of much head scratching when we think about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and using less of the world’s resources.
Household waste adds up to about 400kg of waste produced each year per person, so it’s a lot. We don’t often realise it, but each day we’re getting rid of about 1.1kg of stuff which is a huge amount.
Becoming a parent does however significantly increase your awareness of the amount of rubbish you get rid of as a household. Nappies, food, paper etc all add up and give you pause for thought on the what you’re throwing away and why.
What are the major contributors to household waste?
Plastic remains the big problem when it comes to waste management. In theory all plastics can be recycled, but it’s expensive and complicated and the incentives aren’t always there to do it.
It’s often just cheaper and easier to start again with fresh virgin plastic – which is maybe why estimates suggest a maximum of 20% of plastics in production are recycled. Plus the quality of new plastics is often much better than recycled varieties and this can be a compelling reason for brands to sell customers new plastic rather than working with suppliers of recycled plastics. It’s also questionable what the environmental impact of cleaning, chopping and melting plastic is to be able to use it again. At some point the energy needed to effectively recover the material makes it more costly.
In contrast to plastic, card, paper, glass and metals are relatively easy to recover and reuse without much sophistication. The benefits are also clear. Recycling an aluminium can for example, reduces its carbon footprint by 95%. While many of those materials (compared to plastic) are more energy intensive in the creation process, they have a much better return on that initial energy investment with how widely and successfully they can be re-used.
A separate issue is food waste. In the UK, households alone waste about 6.6 million tonnes of food. While that number is on a downward trajectory, estimates suggest it costs households about £800 a year in food shopping.
Where does your household waste go when it leaves your home?
Waste collection, managed by local authorities in the UK and charged to you through your council tax, has a number of avenues.
At waste management centres, rubbish is emptied from trucks or containers and then sent to a number of possible facilities depending on the targets the local council needs to meet and the waste management agreements they have in place.
Some will be destined for landfill – typically large items and potentially hazardous substances like asbestos. In the 1990s about 90% of waste was sent to landfill but legislation introduced then charged councils for disposing of waste in this way and encouraged more councils to find ways to divert waste from landfill.
Some of that waste is now sent to Materials Recovery Facilities – recycling processors – and some to Energy Recovery Centres – incinerators. Then there’s all the waste that we ship overseas. Approximately half of the paper and card and 2/3 of our plastic waste is shipped overseas.
Other materials like glass is washed and reused or smashed and melted. Cardboard that stays in the UK is sent to mills for pulping and reformatting into new cardboard boxes.
What is landfill and what goes in it?
Landfills are solid waste disposal sites where both active waste (most household waste that will decompose) and inert waste (waste like construction materials that doesn’t change state) is sent. It’s compacted and then covered with soil periodically. The aim is to minimse the amount of space that waste takes up and make sure it’s stored with minimal damage to nature and people.
The use of landfills as a way of getting rid of waste has been declining significantly in the UK in the past decades. A tax on landfill waste was introduced in 1996 at £7 per tonne, but the rate has been increasing significantly since then. In 2021 the tax on landfill was £96.70 for household waste. It’s helped reduce landfill usage dramatically. 72% less waste is sent to landfill by local authorities compared to a decade ago.
What are incinerators? Are they good or bad for the environment?
The other major destination for waste outside of landfill are energy recovery facilities, often just called incinerators. These facilities incinerate rubbish and use the heat to create steam for generating electricity that is added back the grid. The process of burning creates bottom ash – the bulk of remaining materials - which is then used in aggregate material in construction industry.
Incinerators have been used in conjunction with higher recycling rates to meet landfill diversion targets. But we now know that a lot of recycling material is now also sent to incineration plants (approx. 11%) because it can’t be recycled or there’s no one to take the rubbish for recycling overseas.
The amount of rubbish being sent for incineration has increased dramatically over the past 20 years with now almost 50% being sent there across England. It seems that as incineration rates have risen, recycling rates have fallen. This has been particularly pronounced in recent years as selling rubbish for recycling overseas has been hurt drastically by China’s ban on waste imports.
Incinerators are preferable to landfill that otherwise leads to leaked toxic chemicals and methane emissions into the air as the waste decomposes. But incinerators are also offenders of emitting greenhouse gases, even if we benefit more from the energy it creates in return.
How does the recycling process work for household waste?
Materials Recycling Facilities are giant sorting centres with machine and human pickers working like Rumpelstiltskin to turn your rubbish into gold. The aim is to sort the items into different sorts of materials that can then be sold to an array of brokers who in turn pass it onto those who can turn it into materials that can be re-sold as the ingredients for new things.
In the UK, recycling rates have been stagnant around the 45% mark for years, but this doesn’t mean we’ve failed at recycling. Compared to countries like the US with a ~25% recycling rate, this is real progress.
Why does our recycling end up in other countries and where does it get sent?
A lack of infrastructure in the UK to actually recycle means a lot of our rubbish gets exported.
The vast majority used to be shipped to China, but in 2018, China banned 24 types of solid waste, including PET drinks bottles and other plastic containers and demand a level purity to recyclable waste that we could not meet. The end of China accepting waste meant more competition for fewer places to put your rubbish and that meant recyclers could demand cheaper prices.
The value of sorting and shipping rubbish therefore became less attractive. While most of the recycling sent overseas now ends up in Malaysia, we’re subject to the rules and restrictions on recycling in these countries and it has led to a number of cases of illegal waste disposal. There are now warnings that countries like Malaysia may no longer want to be the recipient of all our waste as well.
It creates a bit of a vicious cycle. Higher standards for recycling elsewhere, means the cost of sorting increases for councils at recycling facilities. Which means either increasing costs for residents or more likely, councils stop taking and processing particular items. That in turn leads to more rubbish going into landfill bins or incinerators and therefore increasing pollution. Sometimes in an effort to improve recycling quality, we inadvertently see a reduction in recycling altogether.
How do you know what to do with your rubbish?
While our advice at GRASP on all things skincare is to read the label, when it comes to recycling, this might not get you very far.
There are a somewhat confusing array of 28 different labels with an additional 7 plastic resign symbols that relate to the type of plastic used. Note that the 7th type of plastic refereed to in this symbol is a group of miscellaneous plastics all grouped together. So no wonder it’s hard to know what to do with your rubbish to ensure you best look after the resources you’re using.
A sure fire way of what to do is just check your local facility or a specific product here. What becomes very clear is that reducing and re-using your household items is much cheaper and more effective than recycling.
That’s why at GRASP we’re so focused on reuse-ability. Whether it’s our Mushi cloths or Pebbl bath brush, we know that we don’t need to worry about where our waste goes if we can keep on using the same items again and again and again. We’re also working on refillable solutions for skincare that eliminate extra waste from our household.