Baffled by recycling rules? Here’s all you need to know

It can be hideously difficult to get your head around recycling but help is at hand

Newspapers can go in the recycling bin (generally green). Photograph: Getty

When it comes to managing our bins, many of us are rubbish. But then it's not like we get much help from the State, the waste management companies or retailers.

Apart from introducing the plastic bag tax, successive governments have taken a softly softly approach to helping people do the right thing. Waste-management companies appear to go out of their way to make things confusing, and don’t get us started on the amount of unnecessary packaging on display in every supermarket in the State.

Clearly more needs to be done by everyone involved in the food waste chain from both a moral and a financial perspective, as some of the more depressing numbers indicate.

More than 100 million tons of edible food gets binned across the EU every year, and about 40 per cent of the food produced in the US is never eaten. In Ireland about a million tons of food – worth around €700 million – is thrown out each year, and the tonnage worldwide is a staggering 1.3 billion.


The food we waste is costly to produce; 300 million barrels of oil are used every year to generate the power needed to cultivate food that is never consumed and 550 trillion litres of water is used to grow food that is never eaten.

Crushed plastic bottles at a recycling sorting facility in Switzerland

About one in 10 Irish people suffers from food poverty, and there are more than one billion people starving in the world today.

The shocking levels of food waste across the EU have prompted a campaign aimed at tackling it. And in Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency launched its Stop Food Waste charter in March 2017 (

"It's often easier to waste food than to give it away, which is simply absurd and unacceptable," said the EU commissioner for health and food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, on a visit to Ireland last May. He said Europe was at a tipping point where the "unethical and anti-economic situation of food waste" must stop.

“By curbing the needless loss of precious natural and nutritional resources in the food value chain, we will also support the fight against climate change, as food waste generates about 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” the commissioner added.

Pay by weight

Food waste is one of the most pressing issues of our time on a macro level, but how we manage all our waste on a micro level has been brought into focus in recent months after the roll-out of pay-by-weight arrangements across the State – although the full impact of the end of flat charges will not be felt by everyone for more than a year.

Under the new system the more you throw into the black bin, the more it will cost you. With operators allowed to set their own prices, fears have been expressed in many quarters that charges will soon become penal, although that depends on who you believe.

Alan Kelly, former minister for the environment, said last year that 87 per cent of households would see a reduction in waste bills under a pay-by-weight system, but Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has warned that allowing waste companies "a free-for-all" on pricing structures could mean high costs for consumers.

While we have had bin charges for almost 20 years it is still a hugely complicated area and one few people full understand. Some people pay by weight, others pay flat charges while still more pay by lift. There are green bins, black bins, blue bins, brown bins and red bins depending on which of the 60 companies that collect waste around the State calls to your door.

Baffling recycling rules

It can be hideously difficult to get your head around recycling. Some waste-management companies accept a very restricted list of plastics and will fine you if you include things not on their list in your recycling, while others appear more relaxed about what you can put in. It is possible to buy fruit encased with some plastics that are recyclable and some that are not. Some coffee cups are perfectly fine in your recycling bin, others are banned.

You can put your kitchen waste in a composting bin

Many items are on the edge of acceptability. Some are a long, long way over the edge. Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten said recently that one waste-company director was "talking about animals being thrown into recycling bins. That's the sort of stuff going on at the moment. Do we continue to tolerate that? I don't think we can or should."

Dead animals aside, we have become better at recycling. In 2005 waste collectors picked up nearly 950,000 tons of unrecyclable mixed waste from households compared with 750,000 tons seven years later – we still produce the sixth-highest amount of rubbish per head in the European Union, at 586kg a year. The EU average is 475kg.


I can recycle all paper and plastic, right?
No. Some plastics are fine. Some plastics are not. Wet paper or cardboard is problematic and that pizza box covered in cheese might be dodgy, too. The first thing you need to do is check all packaging to see if it is recyclable. All the obvious stuff can go in the green bin: newspapers, books, magazines, cardboard, cereal boxes, plastic bottles, plastic containers, tin cans and aluminium cans are fine.

There are a lot of symbols on packaging. What do they all mean?
It depends on the product. Glass will have a glass recycling symbol, and it will need to go to a bottle bank once it has been washed. There is a wood recycling symbol, which indicates the packaging has been sustainably sourced. There are also symbols for aluminium, steel and paper recycling. There is also the Tidyman, symbol which tells us to dispose of this carefully and thoughtfully. A crossed-out wheelie bin symbol tells you an item should be disposed of separately from household waste.

What about the weird triangle thing with arrows?
The Mobius Loop? That means a product's packaging is recyclable. It does not automatically mean it will be accepted in all recycling collection systems, however. A number at the centre of a loop is used to identify different types of plastic. Most plastic recycling facilities in Ireland accept PET bottles – used for soft drinks and water – which carry the number 1; and HDPE bottles for the likes of detergent, shampoo and shower gel, which carry the number 2. Some also take LDPE plastics (bags and film/wrap) and these carry the number 4 within the loop.

Aren't all plastic bags, paper and cardboard recyclable?
No. Many places can't recycle plastic bags and clingfilm in case they get caught in the recycling machines. Paper and cardboard gets washed at recycling facilities, and if food is in the mix an entire batch could be ruined . Moisture can damage paper fibres, leaving them brittle and unsuitable for making into new paper.

Would it not make more sense to have just three packaging symbols: 'green bin', 'black bin' or 'brown bin'?
It might, except there is no uniformity when it comes to bin colours. Or even bin distribution. Not all recycling bins are green and not all households get a brown bin.

How does rubbish get treated at a waste-management centre?
To answer this we had to look back at an illuminating piece written by our Dublin Correspondent, Olivia Kelly, who visited such a place a while back.

Pickers at a recycling conveyor belts have to sort through the rubbish to remove all the stuff that should not be there. Apparently people hide nappies in cereal boxes in order to avoid putting them in their black bags. Too many people also throw food in to the recycling. Kelly did not spot any dead animals. Once the unpleasant stuff has been manually removed, the material travels on to another conveyor belt with gaps. This siphons off large cardboard items and everything else falls into a ballistic separator, which separates the lightest material – mixed paper and plastic films and packaging – from the rest.

The light stuff moves on to an optical sorter, which scans the waste and uses jets of air to collect the plastic film. Another optical separator sorts out the clear and opaque bottles and the Tetra Paks. More waste pickers help this process along, ensuring everything goes into the correct pile. A magnet removes steel tins, while an eddy current shakes out the aluminium.

And all black bins go straight to landfill?
No. Something called a rotating trommel shakes out "organic finds" – mainly food waste – leaving plastics, papers and metals, which then goes through an "air classifier" to separate heavy and light material. The waste is gradually separated and shredded and brought back together through a number of processes until it has the appearance of dirty confetti. This material is a usable product called solid recovered fuel (SRF), typically used by the cement industry as a substitute for coal.

And the contents of my brown bin?
The contents of the brown bin – food and garden waste – are shredded and mixed with wood chips and "seed material" compost, which has already been partially through the system. And eventually it ends up on farms.

Instead of putting all the food in the brown bin, I flush some down the sink. That's okay right?
No. You are just creating a headache further down the line. Things that should never go down your drain include pasta and rice, as they will continue to swell in your drain. Eggshells love to to stick to other things such as coffee grounds to create blockages. The worst thing to pour down the drain is cooking oils and grease. Both these items are a major cause of fatbergs, disgusting hunks of fat that attract other household waste to block up sewers.

What goes in my brown bin?
Raw or cooked food; meat, poultry and fish, including bones, fruit and vegetables, teabags, coffee grinds and paper filters, bread, biscuits, rice, pasta, dairy products, eggshells and cardboard egg boxes, out-of-date food with packaging removed and grass clippings and small twigs.

How can I keep my brown bin clean?
You need to line in with a biodegradable liner and keep the lid fully closed to keep vermin and flies at bay and keep the bin in a shady part of the garden. If you leave it in the sun you effectively cook your rotting rubbish.

There is also a company called Obeo. You put an Obeo box on your kitchen counter and, when it fills up within two to three days, transfer it to your brown bin. Unlike traditional bags, the box is water-resistant and doesn't drip when it comes to emptying the whole affair. It is compostable, so breaks down along with the food waste.


20% How much food produced in the EU is lost or wasted.
8% The percentage of harmful global greenhouse gases caused by the production of food that is ultimately wasted.
€700-€1,000 The amount of money Irish households throw in the bin every year in the form of food waste.
€24,000 How much an average restaurant loses as a result of food waste every year.
€150,000 And the amount an average hotel will lose in food waste.
50% How much food waste should be reduced by 2030 according to a key United Nations Sustainable Development Goal.


Careful segregation of waste could see householders legitimately reduce their waste-collection costs under the new pay-by-weight system:

1. Bring your glass bottles and jars to your local bring bank. Check your local county council website for locations or use the search facility on Repak's website

2. Bring electrical or electronic waste to your local civic amenity site, where it will be taken free of charge. Check out Weee Ireland's website,

3. Minimise food waste by buying the right quantities. Beware of two-for-one offers if you think you won't eat it all before it degrades. Make smoothies or juice drinks from over-ripe fruit before it goes off. for advice.

4. Keep your garden waste in your garden. Grass clippings and leaves can be piled in a corner or under a hedge where they will degrade naturally. Home composting manages garden waste and peelings from fruit and vegetables (do not put meat or fish in composting bins).

5. Keep the ashes from your fire in your garden. This is very important, as hot ashes can cause fires at waste-transfer stations.

6. Try to buy products with less packaging, when possible.

7. Bring your old clothes to textile banks, where they will be collected for recycling.

8. Consider getting value out of old household goods or clothes by selling them online for reuse (,,, etc) or by offering them free on if they have low value.

  • Source: Irish Waste Management Association