Recycling is a hot topic; it gets taught in schools and community groups (UK), it has been rolled out to shopping centres and public spaces and recycling centres are popping up all over the country to encourage more people to recycle home, school and business waste.

On the surface, separating waste seems like a relatively simple thing to do.  However, when you look at the process a little deeper it throws up a whole heap of questions that could turn the whole process into a complete and utter headache!

  • Do you know your HDPE from your LDPE plastic?
  • What do you with damaged clothing that can’t be donated to thrift shops or charities?
  • How can you reduce the amount of plastic that comes into your home?

These are just some of the issues consumers are faced with when trying to do their best for the future of the planet.  In this article we are going to try and help with some of the ‘unknowns’ and shed a light on the grey areas of recycling.  We even have a free download and some handy ‘alternative tips’ for you to consider trying.

So that you do not have to trawl through this article to find out if we have answered your recycling questions, these are the topics we are going to cover:

  • Do I have to wash my plastic before recycling?
  • How can I tell if plastic is recyclable or not?
  • Can I recycle plastic lids?
  • Can I recycle plastic coat hangers?
  • Can I recycle tin foil?
  • Can I recycle cling film (plastic film)?
  • Can I recycle wrapping paper?
  • Can I recycle envelopes with windows?
  • Can I recycle takeaway coffee cups and lids?
  • Can I recycle food and drinks cartons?
  • What can I do with clothes that are too old to donate to charity?

Before we go on; we have provided you quite a few links to different products in this article, some of these links are affiliate links but in the interests of being open and honest, we have highlighted these.

So, let’s get down to business

Plastic recycling - do I have to wash my plastic before recycling?

Short answer is yes.

When your recycling is picked up at the kerb (or collected from a central point) it goes to a sorting facility to be picked through by either machines or sometimes by hand.  If there is an element of contamination from unwashed containers, this could result in a large number of items (or a whole lorry load) being sent to landfill – bang goes all the recycling efforts!

How can I tell if plastic is recyclable or not?

Out of the whole practice of recycling, plastic recycling has to be the most confusing to fathom out.  We are going to try and remedy this.

Most plastic containers should either have a label (like the one below) to tell you if the item is recyclable or not.

example of recycling label

Some manufacturers do not put this information on their product labels however, the actual container itself should show a triangle with a number in the centre (generally found on the bottle of the container) or letters that will indicate the type of plastic it is made from:

What plastic is recyclable_

Check the container and if it is marked with PETE or HDPE (or the numeric symbol 1 or 2) you can put it in your plastic recycling bin.  PETE and HDPE plastics are normally used for:

  • Drinks bottles
  • Cooking oils
  • Milk cartons
  • Cleaning products
  • Shampoo
  • Soaps

Bear in mind, this is manufacturer dependant, for instance you cannot assume that all shampoo bottles are recyclable.

Also, with certain packaging, some parts of a container are not recyclable, like the lid for example – but as a rule, manufacturers should have this information on the packaging.

Example of mixed recycling label

Now all this sounds quite straight forward but what if there is no label?

What if the person doing the recycling needs a reminder from time to time? kids especially need some extra guidance.  In my house I use this poster to try and help them decipher what plastic is recyclable and what is not.

What can I put in the plastic recycling downloadable poster

We use this poster in our house, if you fancy using it you can download it free here

Can I recycle plastic lids?


Once you have washed and squashed your container, replace the lid.  It will not only get recycled with the container it will help save space in your bin.

Can I recycle plastic coat hangers?

Not so easily.

A large number of coat hangers are made from plastics that are not recyclable in your kerbside bins; so what can you do?

  • Donate them to charity shops
  • When you buy clothes leave the hangers with the retailer to re-use

Alternative tip –“What can I use instead of plastic coat hangers?”

If you need to buy hangers consider cardboard or fibreboard hangers.  There are several options online, like these from The Hanger Store

Can I recycle tin foil?


You will need to check with your local council but as a general rule, foil and foil trays are not recyclable with kerbside recycling but can be recycled at some recycling points.

What is classed as foil?

  • Tin foil
  • Food trays
  • Pot lids
  • Some wrappers (squeeze it in your hand, if it springs back it is not a recyclable foil wrapper)

Clean the wrapper or container and scrunch it into a ball.  If you can, scrunch all foils together before putting it in the collection point, it makes it easier to recycle.

Alternative tip – “What can I use instead of tin foil?”

For baking and oven food why not try a more environmentally friendly option?

This Baking paper (affiliate link) made from unbleached, chlorine free paper can be put in your compost bin along with food scraps.  However if you don’t have a compost bin it is 100% biodegradable and doesn’t contain any harmful chemicals.  This means that if it does end up in landfill, it will not have a negative effect on the environment.

Can I recycle cling film (plastic film)?


Clingfilm is not recyclable and worst still, it is made up of complex plastics, which end up in landfill seeping toxins into the environment.

Alternative tip – “What can I use instead of cling film?”

  • Instead of covering a plate or bowl with cling film use a container with a lid.
  • No lid? Cover it with another plate.

If you really need to wrap something over a container try out these:

  • Beeswax food wraps – natural and reusable
  • Put sandwiches in a lunchbox instead of cling film or a plastic bag.
  • If you don’t have room to carry a lunchbox what about these as an alternative sandwich wrapping
  • Compostable sandwich bags (affiliate link)
  • Use ceramic or glass containers to reheat food in ovens or microwaves, and cover with a plate if required
  • Use a cake tin for storing cakes, muffins, and biscuits

Can I recycle wrapping paper?

Wrapping paper is about as complex as plastic and there is not one set rule.

  • Some local authorities will accept wrapping paper in your kerbside recycling
  • Other councils have collection points at recycling centres
  • And then you have some local authorities that don’t accept wrapping paper at all
  • Where it can be recycled it can’t have any bows, sellotape or ribbons attached

Santa must be tearing his hair out!

To try and make it easier to decipher, if you can scrunch the paper (once all the sellotape etc has been removed) it can be recycled …somewhere

Alternative tips – “What can I use instead of wrapping paper?”

We wrote this article that might give you some ideas on what to do with your left over wrapping paper – 10 ideas to reduce Christmas wrapping waste

Another alternative is newspaper- this might not initially appeal to you but a local company called Daisiboo Candles use these cute bags made from newspapers

Newspaper bags

If you are feeling crafty, here is how you can make your own:

  • Children’s artwork can be used to wrap presents
  • Brown paper; decorate using a stamp, twine or hand drawn pictures
  • Reusable hessian bags – it’s the gift that keeps on giving
  • Old scarves, cloth, bed linen and other fabrics can be used as an alternative to paper – known as Furoshiki in Japan, it really does look quite effective:
Furoshiki - gift wrapping with material
Furoshiki wrapping techniques

If none of these ideas tickle your fancy there is eco-friendly wrapping paper options available online like these sheets from Etsy which are recyclable and also made from recycled paper.

Can I recycle envelopes with windows?

Yes (but check with your council)

This is another item that is local authority dependent but a large number of councils will accept envelopes with the windows still attached, in the paper recycling.

Can I recycle food and drinks cartons?


Cartons are generally made up of 75% paper, 20% plastic (polyethylene) and 5% aluminium foil (for long-life products) so can’t be put in kerbside recycling.

Fact: On average there is 60,000 tonnes of cartons every year

Cartons can be dropped off at collection points where they are mixed with water and made into a pulp, dried and then made into other paper products.

Can I recycle takeaway coffee cups and lids?

Paper cups come under the same umbrella as food and drinks cartons; they can’t be put in the household recycling but can be dropped off at some collection points.

Alternative tip: “What can I use instead of a paper coffee cup?”

Get yourself a reusable coffee cup

Coffee companies advertise their takeaway cups as ‘recyclable’ however this is slightly misleading. They may be made of paper however the cups are lined with plastic polyethylene to make the inside of the cup water tight.  This means that these cups can’t be recycled in the generic paper recycling.

There are only 3 plants in the UK that are equipped to deal with the recycling of these items;  the reality is that less than 1 per cent of coffee cups ever end up being recycled.

Reusable cups are available to buy in most coffee shops but if you fancy something a little bit different:

Boobalou reusable cups

Amazon - reusable cups

Most coffee shops give you the option of using your own coffee cup; some even give you a little bit off the price of a coffee in doing so.  Recently I read that Waitrose are giving free coffee to customers who take their own cup – win for you, win for the planet.

Some staggering facts:

  • The UK throws away 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year*
  • Less than 1 per cent of coffee cups are recycled*
  • Half a million cups are littered every day*
  • Packaging producers only pay for 10 per cent of the cost of packaging disposal and recycling*

What can I do with clothes that are too old to donate to charity?

Clothes that are still in relatively good condition can be donated to charity shops and charities however, what can you do with the stuff that is past its best?

At many recycling centres there are textile collection points where you can donate your old clothes, bedding and curtains.  These items are used by industrial companies, used as cloths or stuffing for furniture. It is sometimes stated at the collection point what these items are going to be used for.

Alternative tip: “What can I use old material for?”

Cut them up and use as dusters and cloths

Use as an alternative to present wrapping (remember the Furoshiki?)

For the craftier of you, here are some great ideas on how to re-use your old clothes and bedding:

8 creative DIY idea’s for your old clothes

50 clever things you can do with old clothes

What next

 “Reduce, reuse, recycle”

This adage has been bandied about for a long time, maybe to the point that there it has lost its meaning? So much so, that there is still too much unnecessary waste and environmental pollution.

Yes, it takes a little bit of thought when it comes to throwing something in the bin.  It might mean that you have to organise a small area in your home to accommodate the collection of recycling.  It might even mean that you have to take a trip to the recycling centre once in a while but is it not worth the little bit of extra effort to try and stop this:

Plastic pollution in the UK

Convenience comes at a cost; convenience and human medalling is pushing the importance of the planet aside.

An extreme example of unnecessary human interference that exists today:

Pre-peeled orange in plastic container

It is not only the consumer that has to change their habits.  Change needs to come from the manufacturers to reduce and streamline the plastics used and ensure that the ones they use are recyclable.  It is astonishing that with this monumental problem hanging over our heads, that companies still use non-recyclable materials knowing full well the devastating effect it is having on the planet.

'Every minute of every day a truckload of plastic is finding its way into the oceans' – Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

War on Plastic, a new BBC One documentary series featuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall starts on June 10th – I urge you to watch.

Making changes in the products we use, the food we eat and how we stay healthy and active can seem like a daunting task.

Where do you start?

Where do you find the time?

Maybe you have you made some changes but don't know what else you can do?

Our ‘Detoxify your life’ project could help you along the way; one email each month with helpful suggestions to detoxify your life one step at a time – interested?

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We have included quite a few links in this article, they are listed here to help you:


Recycle Now - Scotland 

Forge Recycling  *


Cardboard or fibre hangers from The Hanger Store

Unbleached 100% biodegradable oven paper

Beeswax reusable food wraps

Compostable sandwich bags - affiliate link

Etsy recycled and recyclable wrapping paper - £12.95 for 12 sheets

Boobalou reusable cups

Amazon - reusable cups

To watch

How can I tell if my wrapping paper is recyclable?

How to make your own newspaper bags

To read

10 ideas to reduce Christmas wrapping

8 creative DIY ideas for your old clothes

50 clever things you can do with old clothes

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