We recycle plastic with the best intentions. People reasonably think that once plastic is collected, it begins its journey to becoming a new material. That’s the definition of plastic recycling, after all! But statistics reveal a concerning reality. A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. And 70% of recyclable plastic in Europe ends up in landfill sites, including what we put into our recycling bins.
Before we explore the “whys”, it’s important to know who decides on what gets recycled in the UK: it’s up to local councils. They have the freedom to decide whether they collect just one type of plastic (e.g. Greater Manchester), or nearly every type of plastic (e.g. South Oxfordshire). This devolved responsibility has led to controversy — Swindon told its residents to stop recycling plastic altogether.
As you can imagine, these inconsistencies lead to a lot of recyclable plastic ending up as rubbish. But that’s only one piece of the puzzle. It’s technically possible to recycle every type of plastic. So why does so much not get recycled? Let’s take a look.
Contaminated plastic recycling
As individuals, we have an important role to play in the recycling process. There are two ways we can contaminate plastic:
- By not rinsing off food or drink residue — Not only is it less likely that the piece of dirty plastic will be recycled, but it can contaminate other materials in the recycling bin too.
- By putting the wrong material into a bin for plastic — e.g. glass. The wrong type of material can cause complications at the recycling facility.
Councils decide whether it’s worth the time or cost to deal with contamination. If a contaminated load is rejected, an entire lorry full of plastic is sent to incineration or landfill instead.
Contamination rates are as high as 20% in the UK, meaning tonnes of plastic is rejected every year.
Producing high quality recycled plastic isn’t as easy as you might think. Only a small percentage of plastic collected for recycling satisfies food-grade packaging standards. If it’s not good enough, it gets sent to landfill or incineration instead.
Exasperatingly, even when plastic is good enough to be made into a new product, additional virgin material is added to “upgrade” its quality. This is so it can compete with the quality of new products on the shelf.
Plus, plastic has a limited lifeline. Each time plastic is recycled, its polymer chains grow shorter, which reduces its quality. The same piece of plastic can only be recycled two or three times. Glass and metal can be recycled infinitely.
Complexities of plastic recycling
Plastic recycling is no straightforward process. Most packaging is made from different types of material, which have to be separated before recycling. For example, packaging for meat may consist of a PET plastic tray, a PVC plastic film, and a paper label which is attached with glue. In many cases, recycling facilities don’t consider it worthwhile to separate and recycle each piece.
Even the colour of plastic packaging can deem it unrecyclable. Black plastic isn’t detected by infrared technology, which is widely used in plastic recycling. It commonly ends up being discarded as waste.
The plastic market
Recycling is a global multibillion dollar industry, and like all industries, it’s dictated by supply and demand. If demand goes down, less plastic gets recycled. If it doesn’t get recycled — you guessed it — it’s incinerated or sent to landfill.
Some types of plastic are worth more than others. Bottles attract the best prices, which is why almost all councils in the UK recycle them. Polystyrene is almost never recycled, as there’s no market for it.
The price of oil — a raw material of plastic — also affects demand. If oil prices go down, it becomes cheaper to buy virgin plastic than recycled plastic.
Demand for recycled plastic only accounts for 6% of plastics demand in Europe.
UK plastic exports
The UK sends two-thirds of plastic waste overseas to be recycled, which contributes to our national recycling rate of 45.7%. But what’s actually happening to a lot of this plastic is anything but recycling.
Low paid workers in south-east Asia sort through our recycling to find the most valuable pieces. Earlier this year, it was exposed that the rest may be discarded at illegal landfills or burned — at the detriment of local communities.
A lot of this discarded plastic also ends up in local waterways, where it’s led straight to the ocean. Just ten rivers carry 90% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean — it’s no coincidence that eight are in Asia.
This quote from Dr LC Theng, a waste consultant based in Malaysia, says it all:
“You [developed countries] have so-called high recycling rates; as citizens do you know where your plastic waste and pollution ends up?”
But the tides are turning. China introduced bans on plastic imports in 2018, and Malaysia announced that up to 3,000 tonnes of plastic, which turned out to be unrecyclable, will be returned to countries including the UK, US, Australia, and France.
Clearly we can’t recycle our way out of plastic pollution. Plastic recycling is leading to tonnes of plastic ending up as pollution, which is the outcome we believe we’re avoiding when we recycle. So what needs to change?
Government action — Plastic isn’t going away overnight, so in the meantime, we need more efficient recycling. The government needs to centralise its recycling efforts and introduce a nationwide recycling policy.
Industry change — Retailers need to be held accountable for their packaging. They need to be incentivised to replace plastic with sustainable alternatives, which are reusable, biodegradable, compostable, or infinitely recyclable.
Reduce plastic — As individuals, we need to produce less plastic waste in the first place. Think about the plastic you dispose of regularly — can you replace it with non-plastic alternatives? For example, paper wrapped soap can replace plastic hand soap, shower gel, shampoo, and more.
Read more: A beginner’s guide to reducing plastic
The more we understand the problem with plastic, the better. The movement against plastic pollution has already resulted in change — the plastic bag ban in the UK reduced usage by an outstanding 86%. Our values are changing as consumers, which is putting pressure on brands like Waitrose to produce less plastic. Let’s keep learning, sharing, and reducing — that way, things can only get better.
Read more: 9 positive plastic pollution facts
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