Don’t confuse your refuse!

New data reveals damaging recycling habits

Thanks for Trying exhibition Credit: Lucy Young

A new national poll commissioned by North London Waste Authority (NLWA) has found that of the 3,000 people surveyed, almost 58% admit to putting items in the recycling that they’re not sure are actually recyclable. This was much higher amongst younger people, at 69% for 16-24 year-olds and 72% for 25-34 year olds.

NLWA is the second largest waste disposal authority in the country, serving a population of more than two million residents across Haringey, Enfield, Hackney, Islington and Waltham Forest.

The recent data reveals that 36% of people put kitchen roll in their household recycling, 43% include broken drinks glasses and cookware, and 19% put black plastic bin bags in, even though none of these items can actually be recycled.

An exhibition entitled Thanks for Trying has launched in Coal Drops Yard, Kings Cross, to help tackle the issue of recycling contamination.

The project is curated by internationally acclaimed artist Mat Kemp who works with recycled and found objects collected from north London’s household recycling stream.

The exhibition was put together with support from NLWA’s recycling contractor, Biffa Waste Services, and LondonEnergy Ltd (the company that runs north London’s reuse and recycling centres, and energy from waste facility). It is designed to provoke thought and discussion around our recycling habits.

Mat said“Recycling is now a part of all of our lives and this project aims to make people aware that with a little more care, we can be much more effective recyclers. What we discard says a lot about us. Beauty and intrigue can be found in many of these items… they tell a story and we have the ability to give that story a more compelling ending.”

Recycling contamination is making the recycling process more challenging, and costing councils a huge amount of money. Last year, 15% of the materials collected in north London were contaminated with non-recyclables like nappies, food, clothes, or black bags of rubbish. This meant 18,000 tonnes of household recycling had to go to waste. North London’s rejected recycling loads and associated costs is approximately £2million each year.  

NLWA’s data shows that between April and September 2020, 559 loads of collected mixed recyclable material were either rejected (and disposed of as residual waste) or downgraded at the materials recovery facility (where recyclable material is processed). 

Black bin bags were the most common contaminant, found in over 500 loads – these regularly clog up machinery in the processing plants. The next common was textiles (490 loads), followed by food waste (432 loads) and electrical items (303 loads).

Chair of NLWA, Clyde Loakes, said:“People are getting better at recycling and we’re really encouraged that most are trying to do the right thing, however we’re finding people’s enthusiasm for wanting to recycle even impractical items is having a serious impact on the recycling process and is also costing tax-payers money.

“Nappies and food also regularly contaminate loads of recycling and many people don’t realise it’s people who have to pick out these items, not machinery. Small changes in the way people recycle can significantly help the recycling process and we’d urge people to take the ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ approach – this way we can significantly reduce contamination and improve recycling levels.”

Thanks for Trying by Matt Kemp, 20-23 July 2021 – Tuesday-Thursday 11am to 6pm (last entry 5.30pm), Friday 11pm-4pm (last entry 3.30pm), at Kiosk N1C, 108 Lower Stable St, London N1C 4DQ. Free.  

To find out about what you can and can’t recycle in north London, visit: For information about other household collection services: