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Hard to recycle items: How to declutter sustainably

BY Becca Inglis

1st Mar 2023 Environment

Hard to recycle items: How to declutter sustainably

Hard to recycle items have UK households stumped. Here’s how to recycle tricky items like phones, clothes and paint

The will to live more sustainably is certainly growing in the UK, even if many are still unsure about how to put that into action.

In 2021, one study found that over half of us recycled more than we had the year before, with nearly 88 per cent then considering recycling the norm. 

Most have become well acquainted with recycling paper, cardboard, metal and glass, thanks in large part to council-provided recycling bins for each household.

"In 2021, over half of us recycled more than we had the year before"

But when it comes to more difficult to recycle items, many households fall down in their sustainability credentials. 

Cupboards and drawers stuffed with old electronics, batteries and paint are commonplace, as are the reams of bulky items like mattresses that find their way to landfill. 

It takes a little more conscious waste management, but there are ways that you can recycle these more tricky household items and reduce your environmental impact

How to recycle old paint

Three unused paint cans to be recycledDonate your old paint to community groups with Community RePaint

If you’re a homeowner, you’ll know the neverending battle to find space for your stockpile of unused paint cans. 

Households in the UK store enough leftover paint to cover the Forth Rail Bridge 212 times, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. On top of that, nearly 98 per cent of unused paint is burnt or sent to landfill. 

That’s an enormous waste of non-renewable resources. A lot of decorator paint contains polymers in liquid formulations (PLFs) to help it stick to walls, and these are made with fossil fuels. 

Paintcare works with local governments to increase paint recycling. Around one in three Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) recycle liquid paint, which you can locate using an interactive map on Paintcare’s website.

Rather than chucking your leftover paint in a forgotten cupboard (or worse, the bin), try giving it away. Dulux’s Community RePaint takes unfinished tins of paint and donates them to groups like primary schools, community gardens or charity headquarters. 

Dulux are also trialling a tester take-back programme, where you can return unfinished tester paint to participating Homebase, B&Q and Wickes stores.

How to recycle your old mattress

Pile of old mattresses in streetOld mattresses can be recycled to make carpet padding

Mattresses are especially cumbersome to get rid of when they reach their end of life, and many of us are resorting to landfill. 

Of the six and a half million mattresses that were disposed of in 2020, 24 per cent were sent to be recycled. That’s an improvement on eight years ago, when only ten per cent of mattresses were recycled, but still falls short of the National Bed Foundation’s goal to reach 75 per cent by 2028. 

Many of the materials in mattresses, such as box springs and polyester filling, are not biodegradable, so it is better to divert them from landfill by reusing them.

"Of the six and a half million mattresses that were disposed of in 2020, 24 per cent were sent to be recycled"

Companies like Collect Your Old Bed and The Mattress Recycling People pick up your old mattress and bed parts and take them to be dismantled and recycled. 

Mattress foam can be reused as carpet padding, while steel springs are considered highly recyclable, so can be broken down and remade into any number of new steel products. 

If you are giving away a bed frame, the foundation wood is repurposable as mulch or biomass fuel.

How to recycle electronics 

Box of old wires, devices and cables to be recycledYour old phones and cables are a valuable source of precious metals, which can be recycled

The UK is rapidly becoming one of the worst offenders for e-waste in the world. Uswitch found that between 2008 and 2022, the amount of IT and telecoms waste doubled, putting the UK on track to overtake Norway as the biggest producer of e-waste worldwide. 

The thing is, people do want to dispose of their e-waste more responsibly—in a Royal Society of Chemistry survey, just over half of participants were worried about the environmental impact of electronics, but didn’t know how to recycle them properly. 

E-waste like phones and laptops contains precious metals, like gold, nickel and copper, which leak toxins into the ground (and nearby groundwater) when they decompose. 

Some of these metals are made with so-called “conflict minerals”, which are extracted from mines that are linked to child labour, armed conflict and health risks. Recycling the metals in electronics is vital then to mitigate the tech industry’s environmental and social impact.

"The UK is rapidly becoming one of the worst offenders for e-waste in the world"

In the case of mobile phones, your retailer might already have a recycling initiative set up. O2, Virgin Media and Three all offer customers money in exchange for their old devices, depending on their condition. 

Apple’s Apple Trade In programme also gives customers store credit in exchange for old laptops, phones and tablets. 

You can even hand your old electronics in at shops. Retailers in the UK are required by law to take old devices off your hands free of charge if you buy a similar item.

Bigger shops must accept small items, like calculators or phones, whether you have bought something new or not.

Otherwise, WEEE Charity does residential pick-ups for all manner of electronic devices, including computers, TVs, DJ equipment, sports equipment, printers, and Freeview and Sky boxes.

How to recycle old clothes

Woman preparing clothes to sell on second hand resale appUse resale apps like Depop and Thrift+ to get more wear out of your clothes

Lots of shops, like H&M, Primark and M&S, now offer clothes donation banks in-store, while councils are getting in on the act with on-street textiles recycling points.

However, with news that less than one per cent of binned textiles is turned into new clothes (and a significant chunk of the rest is exported to other countries as waste), it’s worth being a little wary of some of these recycling initiatives. 

Fast fashion has driven the fashion industry to be the second biggest global polluter, after the oil and gas industry. Toxic run-off from factories and water-intensive crops like cotton also put a strain on the world’s water sources. 

The mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” is useful when tackling these environmental impacts. The best thing you can do is wear your clothes for longer so that you buy new less often.

You can also sell your clothes or donate them to charitysecond hand apps like Depop and Vinted have already ensured that the resale market in Britain grew by an impressive 149 per cent between 2016 and 2022.

One app that takes the hassle out of selling second hand is Thrift+. Rather than listing the clothes yourself, you post them to the company warehouse, where they take care of the selling process for you, including photographing your items so they look their best. 

The money that your clothes raise is then donated to a charity of your choice.

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