IT was the biggest row in our house this year – and it all started over an empty butter tub. I was taking rubbish out to the blue recycling bin after dinner. My wife pointed at the tub and said, "That doesn’t go in the recycling."

"Of course it does," I said, "it’s plastic." One daughter agreed, one disagreed. My wife said if I put the tub in the blue bin I’d be doing more environmental harm than good as it could prevent the rest of the rubbish being recycled. I said if the tub didn’t go in the blue bin then she’d be doing environmental harm as it would end up in landfill.

Thus ensued an argument about what could and couldn’t be recycled. I thought nearly everything could, my wife said very little could. "Glasgow City Council couldn’t be so useless that they’d give us a recycling bin but you can’t put a butter tub in it," I said. "Surely, Scotland isn’t that rubbish at rubbish?"

"Go and check then," my wife said. So I did. And she was right.

I think - rather, I thought - of myself as pretty smart when it comes to green issues. But I’m not. I took for granted that the state had started thinking sensibly about the environment, and that’s allowed me to abnegate a lot of responsibility. My newly discovered ignorance has opened my eyes.

I checked with Glasgow City Council and found out that indeed I couldn’t put a lot of plastics in the blue bin. No plastic bags, nothing like yoghurt pots and butter tubs, can be recycled. The plastics you can put in the blue bin are plastic drink bottles, sauce bottles, bottles for shampoo and cleaning products. Most other plastic materials like food cartons, tetra packs, or wrappings - they go in your general green bin and head to landfill.

This can’t be good, I thought. Trash I believed should be recycled is actually going to landfill. And I’m putting the wrong rubbish in the wrong bin and messing up the recycling system. How many people are making the same mistakes? How does this affect Scotland’s record on recycling?

So I got hold of the latest figures from the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency on household waste, how much is generated, and how it’s managed. The figures are for 2018. As a whole Scotland generated 2.4 million tonnes of household waste. We recycled 1.07 million tonnes - that’s 44.7%. In the era of climate crisis and increased public concern over the environment, that’s pretty poor.

I live right on the boundary between East Renfrewshire Council and Glasgow Council, but Glasgow is my local authority. East Renfrewshire generated 43,927 tonnes, and recycled 29,090 tonnes or 66.2%. Glasgow generated 245,318 but recycled just 60,438 - that’s only 24.6%. The worst local authority is Shetland - it generates 9649, and recycles 1017 or 10.5%. East Renfrewshire is the best in the country, followed by West Lothian.

To make matters worse, 2018’s figures are a decline on the previous year. In 2017, Scotland recycled 45.5%. Glasgow recycled 26.7% last year. East Renfrewshire recycled 67.1%.

Like most families, we try to recycle as much as we can - we compost food waste, we never use plastic bags. But the system is confusing. It seems the more the public tries to be green, the less impact we’re having and the worse the state does to match our efforts.

I spoke to the Scottish government and was told everyone has “to play their part”, “reducing waste is important”, families need “to think about what more they can do”, that the government “will do our bit to pick up the pace of progress”. The country exceeds “the EU target set for 2020 relating to biodegradable municipal waste”. It’s also “good news” that we’re generating less household waste than before, and that combined we recycle and compost more than we landfill.

Still, it all felt a bit amorphous, so I tried local government. One senior staffer working on the environment said privately, "It’s definitely not good." Glasgow City Council said that although there’s been an “overall drop” in national recycling rates, the local authority “fully accepts that improving the city’s recycling performance has been challenging”.

To be fair to the council, it’s replacing 50,000 old steel bins across the city, and that’s seen an increase in recycling of 19% at homes with new blue bins. However, a simple public information programme would be a quick fix – telling idiots like me exactly what can and can’t be recycled. Email it to residents. Put the information on all new bins.

Glasgow Council, however, also pointed to one of the key problems: the business model behind the recycling industry. The council is “finding that the marketplace for recyclable material is increasingly testing”.

What goes in your blue bin really depends on the market. If there’s a market to recycle something then it will get recycled. If not, it’ll more than likely end up in landfill. Some 52% of UK councils say they’ve experienced problems with the plastics market.

Those plastic drinks bottles? Well, there’s a market for them. Only a fraction of plastic pots, tubs and trays have an end market, however, according to analysis by Recoup, the recycling charity.

The market must not be allowed to dictate recycling policy. The state either needs to intervene to provide adequate recycling facilities, or enter into discussions with the industry to improve the service given to the public. Retailers and producers should also bear responsibility - if they create waste, they need to help clean it up.

However, the pubic also needs reminded that there are reasonable limits to what the market can do as well. Councils complain that if we put rubbish in recycling with food on it, then we’re wasting our time. Recycling systems can’t handle it, so plastic with food waste - like the wrong plastic in the blue bin - could be rejected.

The problem is communication. No-one is talking properly to each other - public, councils, business, and government. We need information on what the market can do, the state must fill in the gaps, and the public needs clear advice. That way we can all play our part, the environment will be prioritised, and families won’t end up at war over recycling a butter tub.

Neil Mackay is Scotland’s Columnist of the Year