Culture Shock! Recycling in England

Disclaimer: Recycling may vary throughout the country. What I write about comes exclusively by my personal experience.

During my stay in the South of England, I became acquainted with the experience of recycling, which shocked me because it’s something that we do very differently here in Italy.

For a start, I’d like to talk about what the British actually recycle versus what we do.

Every time I had to throw away something, I always – and I repeat – always had to check on the packaging whether or not I could actually recycle it.

Something that shocked me, was that most of the times, I could recycle only parts of an item – i.e. I could only recycle the cardboard sleeve but not the plastic tray.

Symbols like these were usual on items to sort to the appropriate bin.

I think this is because they don’t have different bins for cardboard/paper and plastic (another thing that baffled me, by the way).

In the UK, the sorting of waste isn’t by material, but by what is recyclable and what is not.

Where I was living, I had a bin for plastic, tin + cardboard/paper, one for glass, and another one for wet waste + not recyclable waste. THAT’S IT! 3 bins in total (the glass one was actually a plastic tray though).

In Italy, we do things very differently: we sort waste by their material, not by what’s recyclable and what’s not, hence we don’t need the symbols on the packaging telling us what to do.

We have a bin for cardboard and paper, one for plastic and tin and one for glass. Then we have another bin for non-recyclable dry waste (i.e. dirty tissues) and one for wet organic waste, provided by the council!
We can then say that we recycle pretty much everything!
(For those of you asking what is done with wet waste, the answer is that it gets recycled as compost or humus)

I think it is more or less the same in most Central European countries. In Germany they even sort glass by its color – blue, green and brown!

Collecting day

In the UK, as in Italy, the day of garbage collection varies by municipality. Where I was at, it was collected on Thursday and every week they collected something different. If the previous week they collected non recyclable waste, the next one they collected recyclable waste and glass, and so on.

Since in the UK you have permanent bins outside your house, you have to take the waste bags from inside your house and fill the bins outside in the evening before the “collecting day”.

Some bins outside houses in the UK.

Where I live in Italy, garbage collection happens twice a week. Once they come to take plastic and wet waste, and once cardboard/paper and non recyclable dry waste (everything on separate containers of course!) .

The eve of the collecting day, you take your waste bags (or/and your small wet waste bin – more on that later) outside your house.
The next day, you’ll find nothing outside but your emptied wet waste bin, if it was a wet waste collection day.

In my municipality, they don’t come to collect glass, so you have to take it to a collection point yourself whenever you would like, but I know for a fact that in many they do come to collect it.


Material UK Italy
Plastic Recycl. bin – sometimes unrecyclable Plastic bin
Cardboard and paper Recycl. bin – sometimes unrecyclable Cardboard/paper bin
Glass Glass bin Glass bin
Wet waste Unrecyclable Wet waste bin

Summarizing my experience, recycling was a culture shock for me, due to how different and how much more we recycle in Italy. There are probably many differences in the actual process that the council goes through to recycle waste, but I’m not an expert on that.
I heard that the UK sells garbage to China and other similar things, but I’m not sure on the authenticity of the rumors although it would explain a lot.

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