Amongst many things, the Dispatches documentary on Monday demonstrated how confused people still are over which packaging can be recycled in their local bins.
Packaging information, especially in relation to plastics, is still inconsistent and even though the on-pack labelling is getting better, for many the uncertainty of what can be recycled locally still pervades like a bad smell.
So if you're one of the hundreds of thousands who are still confused, here are my top tips.
1. Get the latest information from your council
Before you do ANYTHING ELSE, yes, even embarking on reading the rest of this post, get on the blower to your local council, and ask the recycling officers EXACTLY what you should put in your bins. I know it sounds obvious, but if you've been pondering how complicated it all is, this really is the best place to start.
Council information generally describes recyclables by product type and you'll find local authorities mainly fall into two categories; those where you can recycle most types of plastic packaging (and will include yoghurt pots, margarine tubs and fruit punnets) or those that can't, thus limiting your plastics collection to simply bottles (including drinks bottles, detergent bottles, milk containers & toileteries).
If the information isn't clear. Then ask questions so that you are clear on what can\can't be put in your local bins.
Another excellent source at your disposal (please excuse the pun), is the Recycle Now website. You just pop in your postcode and Bob's your uncle, as the system will return the results of what can be recycled at your kerbside, as well as Bring Banks and Household Waste Recycling Centres.
Once you are confident about your council's rules, you will become less reliant on packaging labelling and hopefully less frustrated.
After all, if you can't recycle a plastic fruit punnet through your local collection, you just can't recycle it regardless what message the packaging information might tell you, so don't fall into the trap of getting hot and bothered. Instead try and buy the product loose instead.
2. Find out what the recycling labels really mean.
Even though your local recycling officer is the best source to use, the new on-pack recycling labels can offer some extra help, and that's mainly to raise awareness of the materials used and the likelihood that they can be recycled.
Again, the best place to find out about the labelling guidelines is at the Recycle Now website. Remember, the labelling advice should be followed as a call to action, prompting you to check with your local authority (coming back to point 1) as opposed to a definitive guide in itself.
Once you are familiar with your local rules, even if the packaging doesn't have the correct up-to-date information printed on it you'll be more confident about what you should do. For example, whilst shopping in a supermarket the other day, the own-brand bread packaging showed that it couldn't be recycled, despite the fact that a new in-store collection had been introduced only a month or so earlier, which actually collects packaging film such as bread bags and toilet-roll wrappers.
3. Avoiding packaging that can't be recycled.
With all the controversy surrounding recycling, with its complications, targets and whether it is sorted properly in the first place, it is very easy to lose sight of what we as consumers actually can do to reduce our waste contribution.
We might not feel as though we have much power, but actually we do...lots! There are many small changes that we can make, which can have a huge impact if they are applied across the nation. I'd hoped to include some of these this week on Woman's Hour, but we simply ran out of time. This list is not exhaustive by any means, and should really be considered as a starter for ten....
- Avoid packaging: Buy loose wherever possible, and support independent stores such as Unpackaged, which actively promotes that you use your own containers.
- Switch packaging: If there isn't an unpackaged option, switch products you can't recycle for those that you can. For example one particular major toothpaste brand comes in small thin plastic bottles, made from the same plastic as fizzy drinks bottles and can be recycled widely.
- Choose reusable: You can also reduce your packaging by switching from disposable products to reusable ones and prevent other waste too. Jackie, who was featured in the Dispatches programme, took my advice about ditching floor wipes and bought a reusable mop. This will save her loads of cash as well as reducing the amount of rubbish thrown away. If you're an avid baby wipe user, try using soft washable cloths instead.
- Upcycle: If you can't recycle the packaging or avoid it completely, try upcycling it instead and raise some cash for your favourite charity. Terracycle offers an upcycling service for packaging from brands that include Johnson's baby wipes, Ella's smoothies, Kenco coffee refills and Aquafresh toothpaste tubes and toothbrushes. It's a great scheme for schools and local community groups. The products are turned into new things that are sold on the Terracycle website.
- Split It: If you live in one of the areas that doesn't recycle plastic yoghurt pots, check your supermarket shelves for products that use less plastic. There are pots on the market that now have a thinner plastic liner and a tear-off cardboard outer (just like the one in the photo). These can be separated, with the cardboard being recycled and less plastic actually going to waste. More packaging will move in this direction, especially thanks to innovations such as Split-it, so keep an eye out on the shelves for products that can help you reduce waste.
- DIY: That's right, do it yourself! If you're hacked off with not being able to recycle your ready-meal trays, see if you can save money and waste by making it yourself. Or if you've got a great friend who can really cook, and I mean really cook, invite yourself around and have a great night out instead of worrying about what you're going to do with the dirty plastic tray and ikky film. Then invite them over next week for some beans on toast!
Of course, all I've covered here is just packaging waste. Food waste is much more of a significant issue. If you're interested in tackling that, watch this space as I'll be back soon with more tips on what you can do at home.
If you missed the Dispatches "Britain's Rubbish" documentary on Monday, it is still available for the next 27 days at 4OD. It's packed with footage about fly-tipping, plastics, recycling systems and politicians arguing their case as well as the story of how Jackie, a mum from Manchester reduced her family's rubbish from 13kg a week to 5kg. I know I'm biased, but for me, that's the best bit. (Just in case you're looking out for it, my appearance is at 15 minutes and 28 minutes into the programme).
If you want to catch up on the Woman's Hour broadcast this week featuring Bob Gordon, Head of Environment for the British Retail Consortium and Liz Goodwin, Chief Executive of WRAP, you can 'listen again' via the BBC Woman's Hour webpage. Just look for the chapter on Zero Waste.