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Julie Wright
Copy editor
Asked a question last year

How much of what goes into "recycling" bins actually gets recycled?

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I think you mean how much of the mass is lost during processing. There are two ways of looking at this:

(total mass which is fed back into manufacturing / total mass of material including contamination) *100 = proportion recycled


(total mass which is fed back into manufacturing / total mass of target material) * 100 = proportion recycled

[‘target material’ describes the mass which is ‘required’ by the reprocessors i.e. no contamination]

Obviously the first one will show a smaller proportion recycled, but that’s because recycling always comes with material which is either not recyclable, or not required by the sorter or reprocessor.

We don’t know what these losses are for sure because much of the information is commercially confidential. This will also vary across income groups. For instance the proportion lost in high income countries will be very high because recyclates are collected because of policy, and separation is carried out by householders. In low income countries, almost all recycling is carried out by waste pickers (the informal recycling sector) who cherry pick material at source, thus resulting in very low loss rates.

I’ve been studying these systems for some years now so am sort of well placed to make some guesses about the proportion which is actually recycled. However I would welcome comments from others who may have more knowledge particularly Toby David Low who knows a lot about plastics, David A Kelly who knows about paper recycling, and Rob Lion who knows a thing or two about glass cullet cleaning. These are for high income countries, which means the average is based strongly on the US, Europe and Japan. I’m reporting the proportion recycled using the first calculation, so including contaminants.

Paper and cardboard = 70% (plenty of out throws during sorting and then more short fibres discarded during drinking / pulping)

Glass packaging = 75% (I base this on single stream which has high out throws during sorting at the MRF)

Aluminium packaging = 90% (losses are mostly liquid with some plastic attachments)

Steel packaging = 90% (although steel cans contain much more residue than aluminium, my understanding is that some of the carbon from the food ends up in the finished product)

Plastic packaging = 35% (lots of contamination, lots of non-target material, loads of liquid, some food, lots lost during reprocessing) - if using calculation 2, I think it’s about 45 - 50%