3 Systems that Can Solve Our Plastic Waste Problem System 2: Separate Collections

In 2020, the Circularity Gap Report revealed that our economy was 8.6 % circular (meaning only a very small amount of the products we produce get reused or recycled). In 2019, we were 9.1% circular. This means that not only are we not progressing to a more a circular economy fast enough, but we are regressing. That needs change. Good thing for us, there are solutions that already exist that could help increase that percentage. We just have to apply them.

TOMRA’s recently launched white paper, Holistic Resource Systems, details those solutions (with evidence to back them up), and for the next few weeks, we’re going to take a closer look at each one. Last week, we explored Deposit Return Schemes (DRS). Next up: Separate Collections.

Let’s be honest. Recycling can be complicated. And sometimes, it can be confusing (especially since what can and can’t be recycled varies from one recycling facility to another). If we’re putting in the time and effort to recycle, we want to know that it’s really paying off and making a difference in the world. One thing that can really throw a spanner in the works is contamination.


When recyclable items are contaminated by items that shouldn’t be in the same bin (like dirty food containers, soiled paper, etc.) it means that entire batch of material can’t be recycled. And those items often end up being burned or buried in landfills, releasing toxic gases like methane as they decompose (methane is one of the main causes of global warming).

So, to make sure our time and energy isn’t wasted, we have to make sure we recycle properly. That means ensuring recyclable materials aren’t contaminated by dirty or improperly sorted items. That’s where Separate Collections come in. The separate collection of specific material streams is a vital part of making recycling work.

What Should be Separated?

Organic (food and garden waste)
Did you know that 40% of the waste generated in households is organic waste? That means there is a huge opportunity here to increase our recycling rates just by recycling our food and garden waste! In the kitchen, think leftover food, fruits and vegetables, coffee filters, and tea bags. In the garden, think grass cuttings, and leaves.

Of course, recycling organic waste has the potential to increase our recycling rates, and limit our need for artificial fertilizers (organic waste can be transformed into compost that nourishes soil), but it can also help us stay motivated to stop being so wasteful in our everyday lives (when we see how much food goes to waste, it can help keep bad habits in check).

You see, when you throw food into the bin, not only are you wasting the resources that went into making that food, but you are also increasing the amount of methane that will get emitted into the environment when the food ends up in a landfill. In fact, we could reduce around 8% of all human-caused GHG emissions if we stopped wasting food.

It’s simple. Place all your food and garden waste in a paper bag (never plastic) and throw it in the organic waste bin.

The most important aspect of recycling paper (think cardboard boxes, receipts, photographs, magazines and newspapers, paper cups, and milk cartons) is maintaining its integrity. How can we do that? Again, make sure there is no chance for contamination. Any food or liquid that gets on paper will destroy it, rendering it – and everything else in the bin – unrecyclable.

Tip: When you place your (clean) paper items in the recycling bin, make sure you pack the paper bin properly, dismantling boxes and making sure everything fits (don’t overfill it). Hint: The lid should close.

There’s no doubt. The fashion industry needs to reduce its carbon footprint. Sorting and recycling are big components of that. Textiles need to be sorted according to different types of fibers, either manually (by hand) or, more recently, using machines (check out the world’s first fully automated textile sorting plant from TOMRA and Stadler).

No matter how textiles are sorted, they need to be clean and dry before sorting. So, next time you recycle your clothes, bed linen, towels, and shoes, give them a wash and make sure they’re dry first. Of course, you can also donate to charities and secondhand shops before you go the recycling route (remember, reuse is a huge part of the circular economy).

WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment)
When we think of e-waste, we immediately think of mobile phones and computers. But e-waste also includes things like refrigerators, washing machines, watches, video games, lawn mowers, and sewing machines. These are all items that, if improperly disposed of, can release toxic chemicals and materials into the environment, and, if improperly recycled, can contaminate other waste streams. That’s why separation is key.

When we recycle e-waste properly, we are able to recover valuable materials like copper, tin, iron, aluminum, titanium, gold, and silver. We are also able to reduce the demand for virgin materials and primary resources (keeping items in the system, rather than in landfills). Again, a key part of the circular economy.

Now. While Separate Collections offer a lot value and play an essential role in boosting our recycling efforts, we don’t need to collect plastics separately. That’s where MWS comes in. We’ll cover this important system next week!