Scotland, why are you so messy?

Random fridges are not an unusual sight in Scotland

Scotland, we need to talk about recycling. You are a country with such formidable nature and heritage that is admired throughout the world. And yet, whether you hit the town on Sunday morning or drive along Loch Lomond to the north, there’s litter everywhere. So, tell me, Scotland, why are you so messy?

Growing up in the 90s in an eastern European country, I’ve witnessed how quickly things can change. In the space of ten years of my childhood, we came from having illegal wastelands in woods and omnipresent litter in towns to having clean streets and every small village enjoying its own recycling containers. Almost every small town now operates a recycling centre where its inhabitants can dispose of everything from old furniture, electronics, clothes to old batteries or bikes.

Try throwing a piece of paper on the ground in my hometown. I can assure you at least two people will appear from nowhere, telling you to pick it up (or swear at you and then pick it up themselves, depending on their age). Thanks to the massive educational campaign, partly backed by the state, recycling became a national sport and a part of our mentality. Because why would you want to, pardon me, “shit where you eat”? Sure, you’ll still find people who are not bothered about flattening their plastic bottles before placing them into a yellow container (yellow for plastic, blue for paper) but their numbers are getting smaller and smaller by every year according to the official statistics.

This is why I was so surprised when I moved to Scotland seven years ago. At first, I thought this might be an isolated Glasgow issue. But my first ventures outside the city proved me otherwise. Seeing all the empty cans and pieces of plastic scattered along the train rails on my way to Edinburgh, reminded me of the sadness I felt as a small child with the end of winter. Not only that my favourite season was coming to an end, but the melting snow revealed the ditches next to the road being full of miscellaneous dirty items that someone threw out of their car. And there’s nothing more depressing than slushy, brown snow exposing bits of old litter scattered around like frozen corpses on Mount Everest.

I remember when Glasgow City Council introduced the first recycling scheme for businesses. Back then, nobody at my work (I worked as a bartender in the city centre) knew how to recycle. I spent months fishing out cans of Irn Bru from the general waste and placing them into the see-through recyclable bin bags. And explaining to my colleagues that little sachets with sauces, although considered food by some, do not belong to the food waste.

Their reaction was mixed. Some said this wasn’t explained to them properly by the management (which is true, a printed A4 sheet of paper in the staff room will give you next to nothing), while others simply didn’t care. Forgive me, if this isn’t true, but one of my Scottish friends once presented me with the following theory, posing the issue in the context of cultural mentality. That is, no matter what your work position, education or social status is, people here sort of expect/are taught that “someone else will clean after them” or “it’s someone’s job to do that”. I’m not sure to what extent this might be true, nevertheless, it presents a complex idea behind the notion of Britishness and how that relates to contemporary Scottishness.

And then some actually listened and learned. If anything, I’ve left that place after five years with a warming feel that I helped at least thirty people with their recycling journey (we had a high staff turnover). So here I am, writing this article, hoping that someone will find it helpful the next time they need to bin something, and they might not be just quite sure what bin (or container) to use.

The following advice relates to household rubbish management, specifically in the area of Greater Glasgow. So please, bear in mind that things might be slightly different where you live.


What Belongs In Which Bin

Mixed recycling – Blue Wheelie bin

Plastic: cleaner and detergent bottles, milk and drinks bottles, toiletries and shampoo bottles

Cardboard: cardboard egg boxes, cardboard fruit and veg punnets, cardboard sleeves, cereal boxes, corrugated cardboard, toilet roll tubes

Paper: brown envelopes, magazines, newspapers, shredded paper, Yellow Pages

Metal Packaging: aerosols, drinks cans, food tins

General waste – Green Wheelie bin

Food waste – Silver Wheelie bin (Flats & Tenements) or Brown Wheelie bin (Kerbside Households)

Bread, cakes and pastries

Dairy products – cheese and eggs

Raw and cooked fish and meat (including bones)

Raw and cooked fruit and vegetables (including peelings)

Rice, pasta and beans

Teabags and coffee grounds

Uneaten food and plate scrapings

Glass bins – Big Wheelie bin (Flats & Tenements) or regular Purple Wheelie bin (Kerbside Households)

Glass bottles and jar

Garden Waste – Brown Wheelie bin


Grass cuttings



Prunings and twigs



Common items that do not belong into the household waste and should be taken to a recycling centre:

Kitchen Oil – cooking oil and fat shouldn’t be poured down sinks as it can cause blockages. They can be put into a sealed container and taken to your local recycling centre.

Batteries – they are made from trillion different materials and need to be taken apart. Instead of chucking them to your general waste, take them to a recycling centre or a collection point in a supermarket.

Electrics – same as batteries. Although your old kettle seems to be made of plastic, don’t forget about the wiring and the heating element. Some local authorities collect small electrical items as part of their kerbside collection, otherwise, you can recycle these and larger items at selected retailers and at your Recycling centre.

Mattresses and old Furniture – consider selling them or simply donating them if they are in a good condition. If not, most furniture can be recycled at your local recycling centre and some local authorities may also provide a collection service.

Shopping bags – Many larger supermarkets accept your carrier bags as well as other plastic films – look for the message ‘recycle with carrier bags at larger stores – not at kerbside’ on the label.

Pay attention to what you put into your recycling. It actually makes a big difference:

“When the wrong items are put in a recycling container or bin it causes various issues along the way. First of all, it slows down the sorting process as these items then have to be removed by hand and the wrong item can then potentially damage machinery as it is not designed for this type of material.

Then, if too many of the wrong items end up in the recycling material stream and the contamination is deemed too severe – as it would take too long to sort by hand – the entire load is diverted to landfill or incineration meaning the time and effort put into recycling in the first place was wasted.” – Zero Waste Scotland

To know what to put into your recycling, always check the product’s packaging. Most of the items include packaging labels and recycling symbols that are usually self-explanatory. If you are still unsure, have a look at this handy article from Zero Waste Scotland.


Recycling centres (Glasgow):

Polmadie (425 Polmadie Rd, Glasgow G42 0PJ)

Shieldhall (Renfrew Rd, Glasgow G51 4SL)

Dawsholm (75 Dalsholm Rd, Glasgow G20 0TB)

Easter Queenslie (90 Easter Queenslie Rd, Glasgow G33 4UL) – van friendly

Household Waste Recycling Centres are open 7 days a week, 8-4pm (last entry at 3.45pm).

All centres now provide a full waste disposal service, accepting the following waste types:

  • Bags of household waste
  • Electrical Items (including lamps, tv screens and monitors)
  • White Goods
  • Mattresses
  • Wood (including small furniture)
  • Cardboard
  • Garden waste
  • Scrap metal
  • Rubble
  • Dry mixed recyclables, textiles
  • Cooking oil and engine oil
  • Hazardous household items such as solvent-based paint, pesticides etc
  • Car batteries

Glasgow located households can also get their bulky waste items collected by the council. Unfortunately, this service has been limited to request-only appointments under the current circumstance. More info here.

Online Resources


Remember, it’s okay to make mistakes. I used to put plastic films into mixed recycling until the start of this year when I got told off by our binman. The important thing is to try and not be afraid to ask (or Google) if unsure.


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