Recycling on the Go

My array of recycling boxes and bins back home.

I’m always mindful of my rubbish; where it comes from (1. through my buying choices) and where it ends up (2. via my various recycling boxes). While I was recently away cycle touring, which essentially involved cycling each day and camping each night, my recycling efforts were met with new challenges. These were again two-fold:

  1. Food-buying choices
  2. Where to recycle

Due to the nature of my travels, it was not only important for me to eat as much as possible but I also couldn’t carry much food with me – the only thing I bought in “bulk” were the 1KG bags of porridge oats; I have a small camping stove but mainly use this for porridge at the beginning and end of each day. This meant I was stopping at a variety of places for food:

  • Supermarkets or smaller food shops, typically for milk, fruit and anything reduced that was to my liking
  • Cafés
  • Take-away/fast food restaurants
  • Burger vans
  • Inns/Pubs

I’m not used to sourcing my meals from such a variety of places. I occasionally have a cup of coffee at local cafés or burger from one particular burger van, but generally at home I make my own meals.

In fact, my first stop for food is a good example of my mindset and the issues and conundrums I faced along the way. I stopped at a village café and ordered a hot drink and a meal. The hot drink arrived first… in a prober cup but with a plastic disposable spoon for me to stir it with, yet the meal was provided with proper cutlery.

In hindsight I should have foreseen what was to come, and perpetuate throughout my whole trip, with this first example, and then I could have planned and acted accordingly, but hopefully this blog post will go some way to correct that and encourage others. In fact, I think I took the plastic spoon away with me with the view to recycle it.

Also in the village I needed to buy a new coat. I had started my journey in the rain, and true-to-form, my 6-month old waterproof coat by Muddyfox was soaked through (I’ll happily name it since 6 months is pretty terrible). The new coat of a different brand appeared to be of the same material and construction so I didn’t expect it to fare me much better, but it should keep me dry for some months beyond the duration of my trip. I kept my soggy excuse for a “waterproof” coat in my pannier until I found a recycling point the next day with a clothes recycling bank.

Public recycling points

At that recycling point, as well as my coat, I also disposed of other bits and pieces, including plastic milk cartons (for which I’d accumulate a lot of small ones throughout the two-and-a-half-week holiday), but as my holiday progressed I discovered so very few recycling points on my travels, it seems I would have had to take some detours to find them, something I regrettably wasn’t prepared to do.

Take-away food

From the burger vans, chip shops and other take-away restaurants I found myself being presented with food in a variety of containers and materials, and there was little consistency:

  • Take-away tea or coffee would be in a cardboard* cup, and may have either a plastic or wooden stirrer, and before I’d think to decline, it would be topped with a plastic lid. Actually, out of principal, I detest “fresh coffee” being supplied from an un-manned machine and/or being served to me in non-proper cup, call me a coffee snob!*
  • One burger van would serve my burgers on paper napkins, another in a polystyrene/Styrofoam tray (very evil plastic!)
  • One chip shop used a polystyrene tray and another a cardboard tray. The best though was the one that labelled itself as a ‘traditional chip shop’ and wrapped everything in paper and put each part in a paper bag – I was impressed. When you’re going to eat the food pretty soon after you leave the establishment, it really doesn’t matter what it’s wrapped in, and even if you are taking food home to eat, I think a couple of minutes in the microwave does little to impair flavour.
  • Chinese and Indian Takeaways would use polystyrene tubs and plastic tubs (for practical reasons) and hand me my order in a plastic carrier bag. Neither included cutlery – luckily I had my own.
  • At a popular tourist inn, because I’d ordered an orange juice and said “yes” to the question “are you sitting outside” I received my drink in a plastic cup, rather than a glass.

There seems to be a fear among establishments that they will loose proper cups, glasses, plates and cutlery, or things will get broken, or there is an easy choice being made when it comes to cleaning such things for re-use. Where there was a choice for the customer to eat or drink in or out, there seemed to be no price difference, hence part of my objection to paying for ‘proper coffee’ in a paper cup; I felt like I was paying for a luxury item (because of the price compared to instant) yet having it served to me in a sub-standard fashion, AND there was then waste to deal with.

*More of coffee cups and snobbery here [link].

If I was a regular consumer of take-away food I would have to get into the habit of taking my own containers or making specific requests about what they use; I think all businesses should make ethical decisions regarding what packaging they use and consumers should make ethical decisions regarding what packaging they accept.

Camp sites

At some camp sites I found good recycling points with clear signs to assist, although as I travelled from my home in Wales, through England and into Scotland, and through the different counties along the way, I had to read the different coloured bins carefully – there is no UK standard for such things. At my home we have a red box for all paper and card, and a blue box for metal cans, plastic jars, and technically any plastic bottles and trays that are type 1 or 2 (once you start looking for the little symbol you become familiar which which plastics are which, although some are neither, but if it’s a food tray I put it in anyway). At other places I was finding different rules, such at plastic bottles in one bins, and trays in another – since I know bottles and trays can be of the same type, and there are devices to separate the different types, it seems some requests need reconsidering. Some places seemingly provided separate bins but assumed you knew which colour for what.

Recycling in Scotland: plastic bottles, yes, but not plastic trays?
Recycling in Scotland: plastic bottles, yes, but not plastic trays?

Not all sites had designated recycling bins, but I think most made an effort, and one even had a composting toilet; this was my first time using one and I am pleased to report it didn’t smell! It seems odd to think of a camp site, which is supposed to be about “the outdoors”, not considering such things as green waste.

At one camp site there was a small village general store near the entrance and I was delighted about this new find: eco-friendly sandwich packaging… even the window is biodegradable. I was so impressed I photographed it!:

Planglow's eco-friendly packaging
Planglow’s eco-friendly packaging with full explanation

Whenever I pitched my tent and there was a little litter nearby, I would dispose of that along with my own; partly because I wouldn’t want someone to think I’d dropped it, but partly because I like to leave places a little nicer than when I found them.

general_wasteGeneral waste bins

I wasn’t always paying to stay on camp sites though. Perhaps for half the nights I was ‘wild camping’ and for this I found myself relying on General Waste Bins. These became the bane of my life. Partly they are useful and I even saw them being over-used at some lay-bys, but burger vans in particular provide their own. The issue I have with them is that they don’t provide the means for waste to be correctly separated; a burger van might have a mass of polystyrene trays and cups that could be recycled (or rather more easily recycled alternatives should be used), along side compostable material including food waste, napkins and tea bags.

At one particular lay-by I saw a general waste bin overflowing with beer bottles and cans; it painted a vivid picture of the type of people that stop in that lay-by, and clearly not the kind of people that would take such recyclable rubbish home with them.


I caught four ferries in all whilst on my travels. Two were Calmac ones, the third a StennaLine one, and the last one an Irish Ferries one. On board one would receive hot drinks in paper cups with a plastic lid, while food would be served on proper plates with proper cutlery. The Irish Ferries ferry terminal over on Ireland caught me out though.

Since it was the final leg of my trip after getting off the ferry before the last hour’s cycle home, and I had time to spare, I decided to clear out all the rubbish from my panniers before boarding the ferry. Outside the terminal was the familiar sight of general waste bins, so in my rubbish went; I had long since given up looking out for recycling bins en-route. But then, I went inside the terminal, where I discovered multiple separate arrays of recycling bins; two downstairs in the bookings and check-in area, and then the same again upstairs in the café! I was very impressed, although frustrated that these were out of the line of sight of the general waste bin outside, and disappointed that I had already thrown my rubbish into the general waste bin.


You can read more about my cycling trip here: [link]


  1. Yeah, it is rough recycling on the road. In my apartment I sort everything-but in some states it has been impossible to find places to recycle…Missouri was the worst, I saw lots of glass jars in trash cans simply because they was no where else for them to go. It has been a bit of a shock for sure!

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