10 mistakes we make when it comes to recycling

person holding stack of folded nespapers

Phoebe Craw

Posted August 17, 2021

We all understand the importance of recycling (save the planet and all that). But for all recycling’s value, it turns out that most of us still don’t know all the rules.  

Can you recycle soft plastics? Are broken glasses allowed? What about batteries? It turns out the answers are not always easy. In fact, one study has shown that 94% of us are recycling at least one item incorrectly. So, what can and can’t go into your yellow-lidded bin*?  

*Rules on what you can and can’t recycle can vary from council to council, so you might want to look up the guidelines for your local area.  

Common recycling mistakes


Soft plastics 

Soft food containers (like cheese or vegetable wrappings)? A no-no. Bubblewrap? Uh-uh. Plastic bags? Absolutely not – not even to hold your recycling. What about wrapping paper? If you scrunch it in a ball and once you let go, it springs roughly back into shape, then it’s not recyclable. Tip: many supermarkets have soft plastic recycling bins, so save all these items for your next shopping trip.  

Coffee cups

The hipster at your local café isn’t just using a reusable coffee cup so they can match their latte with their leggings. Take-away cups are lined with plastic, so they can’t be recycled. And no, you can’t take the plastic layer off yourself (only a special machine can do this). Unfortunately, they have to go into the bin. 

pile of used cardboard coffee cups

Coffee cups are one of the biggets culprits when it comes to improper recycling.


Shredded paper

You’d think that because most other kinds of paper can be recycled, this one could too. Unfortunately, the shredder makes the pieces too small. The good news? Shredded paper is great for compost and can go in your green bin.   

Nappies and sanitary items

Nope. All these items are landfill only – whether clean or dirty. Thankfully, there are alternatives – so you might want to consider switching to reusable nappies or menstrual cups or underwear.  

Broken glass

Butterfingers! Glass can’t be recycled once it’s been broken. So, once that bottle of wine or kombucha has smashed on the floor, the pieces need to go into your regular bin (wrap them in newspaper to avoid injuries).   

pile of broken glass light bulbs

A lot of glass, especially light bulbs, are unsuitable for recycling.


Kitchen glasses

This one was our biggest surprise. The tough material of kitchen glasses (as well as windows and the glass from ovens) requires a higher temperature to melt than bottles and jars, and therefore can’t be put in your yellow bin. Consider donating these to a charity shop instead.  


Surely batteries and old phones can be recycled, right? Well, they can in some contexts – but not through your regular recycling. Have a look on your local council’s website for e-waste drop-off points instead.  

Biodegradable/compostable plastic

Err, the ‘biodegradable’ bit is kind of the point. These items are designed to break down in your regular rubbish or compost (and they can’t be recycled anyway) so do what it says on the lid.  

child putting glass bottle into recycling bin

Getting in to good recycling habits is important for you, your family, and the environment.


Anything with food residue (even on a recyclable material)

There’s giving something a rinse, and then there’s giving something a ‘rinse’. It could be that last layer of oil in the pesto jar or the yogurt still stuck to the container, which will make the difference to whether the item gets recycled or not. If you want to prevent your recycling from ending up in landfills, it needs to be properly washed first. Tip: pizza boxes need to go straight into the regular bin; the oil and grease that soaks into the box mean there’s no chance it can be recycled.  

Drink cans, aluminium foil, tin cans

Unlike the rest of our list – these items you can recycle! Drink cartons (think milk, juice and soup cartons) are often needlessly thrown out. But most councils accept both foil-lined and non-foil-lined cartons (you might want to check with them what their rules are). But all these are often mistakenly thrown away, even though these scraps can be useful for remaking other items, so into the yellow-lid bin they go.  

How you can reduce your recycling  

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. That’s the saying, so don’t just rely on the last part! Reducing single-use plastics is one of the best ways to cut down on your waste, so remember your reusable coffee cups, shopping bags, water bottles, food containers, and cutlery before you leave the house. Before you throw out old clothes, kitchenware, electronics, and other household goods, consider whether they can be donated to someone you know or a charity shop. Buying second hand also helps to cut down on waste. And for those looking to go that extra level, maybe it’s time to learn how to darn?