• Eight out of ten Brits* believe recycling makes a difference, yet when quizzed on what can be recycled, no one was able to score full marks
  • Used kitchen roll, soap dispenser tops, shiny/metallised wrapping paper and coffee cups top list of items people wrongly think they can put in the recycling bin
  • Results also reveal that environmentally conscious millennials are actually less in the habit of recycling than older generations

New research for British Science Week (9-18 March 2018) shows that Brits are more aware than ever of how recycling can help the planet. However, the majority are putting out contaminated recycling due to common misunderstandings, which  is doing more harm than good.

The British Science Association recently tested 2,000 people from across the UK** on their knowledge of what can and can’t be recycled. This was in a bid to encourage the nation to rally together to help stem the flow of plastic rubbish that is making its way into our oceans, by participating in the citizen science project The Plastic Tide.

Projects like The Plastic Tide are helping to clean our oceans of rubbish, much of which is recyclable 

Brits are increasingly rolling up their sleeves to tackle plastic pollution, with UK households on average putting equal amounts of litter in their recycling bin and their rubbish bin every week. However, the survey results found that most people are still failing to nail the recycling basics, which is resulting in a lot of recyclable waste going to landfill.

No one surveyed was able to complete the quiz answering all the questions correctly. Among the most common mistakes people are making at home or at work, 44% of Brits are putting hand soap pump dispenser tops in their recycling bins when they should be removed from the hand soap bottle, 34% incorrectly think used kitchen roll is recyclable and over 20% are recycling greasy pizza boxes, coffee cups and plastic bags, the worst contaminator of all.

When unsure about whether an item can or cannot be recycled, only 3 out of ten (33%) Brits take the  time to look it up before throwing it in the rubbish or recycling bin.

Other common recycling errors include not always emptying and rinsing shampoo and conditioner bottles (35%) or food containers (29%) and not always removing the plastic insert from tissue boxes (34%).

Among those who admitted they don’t recycle all they can, the top reason given was not being sure what can and can’t be recycled (30%). Surprisingly, more than two out of ten 25 to 34-year olds also said they find recycling too time consuming and are not in the habit of recycling (22%), while only 6% of 55+ year olds said this was the case.

Additionally, nearly 3 out of ten Brits aged 18 to 34 (27%) admitted taking less care with their recycling at work than at home.

There is often much confusion about what can and can't be recycled

The top items which Brits across all age groups wrongly thought they could put in the recycle bin at home or at work are:

  1. Soap pump dispenser tops (44%)
  2. Used kitchen roll (34%)
  3. Shiny/metallised wrapping paper (26%)
  4. Coffee cups (24%)
  5. Glass that isn’t a bottle or jar e.g. window glass (23%)
  6. Plastic bags (22%)
  7. Straws (21%)
  8. Greasy takeaway pizza boxes (21%)
  9. Soft plastic / metallic packaging like pet food pouches (19%)
  10. Photo paper (18.50%)

 The top items which Brits don’t know they can put in their recycle bin are:

  1. Kitchen foil and foil trays which are used but still clean (66%)
  2. Empty deodorant aerosols and hairspray with the plastic cap (58%)
  3. Empty surface cleaner bottle with the trigger spray (57%)
  4. Metal lids (56%)
  5. Empty bleach bottles (51%)

Ivvet Modinou, Head of Engagement at the British Science Association, said:

“It’s encouraging to see lots of people are concerned about plastic waste, but what you can and can’t put in the recycle bin can often be confusing. The industry as a whole needs to address this issue if we are to collectively improve recycling performance. For instance, manufacturers of plastic products could provide clearer information on packaging and local councils should be actively working to improve guidance for local residents. In addition, small, individual actions can really make a difference - such as asking your local cafe not to stock plastic straws - or checking the back of packaging for recycling information.

“Another way that people can help tackle this issue during British Science Week is by becoming a citizen scientist. We’ve partnered with The Plastic Tide this year, who have images of UK beaches which the public can tag for bits of plastic, helping the wider clean-up effort. Our aim is to get over 1 million images tagged in this critical project to reduce the rising tide of plastic waste on our coastlines and we encourage everyone to join in.”

Craig Stephens, campaign manager for Recycle Now, said: “79% of plastic waste ever created is still in our environment. While more and more of us are recycling, it’s clear that it’s as important as ever for everyone to go the extra mile to protect our planet. And by recycling everything we can, we can find new life for materials, and reduce the chance of them ending up in our environment. We know that understanding what and how to recycle can be tricky – that’s why we’ve got useful tips and information on our website, recyclenow.com, to help you out.”

On the subject of fewer millennials recycling than older age groups, Katherine Mathieson, Chief Executive of the British Science Association, said: “At first glance, it may seem surprising that fewer millennials are recycling when compared to the older age groups, as we tend to think of them as being the generation that are most environmentally aware. However, I don’t think these figures reflect a lack of interest from millennials in recycling or that they care less about the environment than the older generations. Instead I think it gives an indication of the challenges faced by younger people, and why we need to do more to offer everyone the same opportunities.

“The different recycling policies from local authorities and the inconsistent packaging across household brands, can make it a challenge for all of us to understand the do’s and don’ts of recycling, but for the younger generation, many of whom will be in rental accommodation on short term leases, and often living in shared accommodation, knowing the rules of that particular council will not always be clear or a top priority.

“To help tackle this, we need clearer guidance on recycling across all packaging and a move towards more consistent recycling policies between local authorities. As shown in the survey, there is clearly a desire to recycle in the UK population – across all generations – but unfortunately I don’t think everyone is offered the opportunities to do that consistently.”

To find out more, visit www.britishscienceweek.org Join in the conversation and share your story using hashtag #BSW18.

*Research from a consumer poll of 2,426 UK participants Recycle Now undertook in September 2017 for British Science Week.

**Research undertaken by OnePoll and commissioned by The British Science Association in March 2018. The research findings are based on responses from 2000 18 - 55+ year olds from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. 

***Statistics sourced from UK Parliament Report on Turning Back the Plastic Tide undertaken in December 2017.

For the full data and to arrange to speak to a spokesperson, please contact:

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