UK Can't recycle all plastic

Where does your recycling really go?

November 20, 2018

I get together with a group of other business owners once a month. We share insights, stories and help each other with our challenges.  And have some fun too.

And last month, I was checking into a hotel after our day of planning when I was offered a complimentary newspaper.

I don’t tend to read hard copy papers anymore; like most of us I get most of my news online, but I had a couple of hours to kill, so I thought, “why not?”.

Aside from the normal Brexit stuff which I, along with most of the population, am utterly sick of (that’s a topic for another day), what caught my eye was a headline on the front page that read “Recycling industry faces fraud inquiry”.

Unsurprisingly, that piqued my interest immediately, and I dove straight in, learning a lot about what we actually do with our recycling, and the unintended consequences of government incentives to “recycle” our plastic.

To understand the scale of the problem, we need to understand a few basics, so here they are:

  1. The UK cannot recycle all of its plastic waste in the UK, therefore it exports it to other countries that have that capability.
  1. In January, China stopped accepting waste from the UK, so the focus has shifted to Malaysia, Vietnam, The Netherlands, Poland and Turkey. (Vietnam and Malaysia have temporary bans in place though, due to reports of high contamination rates)
  1. Exporters make money by charging retailers and manufacturers a tonnage rate to buy “Plastic Export Recovery Notes” – this, in theory is meant to satisfy the government that they are contributing to recycling packaging.
  1. About 100 containers of recyclable material (you know, those massive “deep sea” containers you see on the back of lorries) leave UK ports every day, bound for “recycling” in other countries.
  1. The “fraud” bit of the headline is that companies are claiming that they have sent more than they actually have.

So, here’s what’s happening:

As consumers, we’re dutifully separating our plastics that can be recycled and putting them out to be collected. 

And that - in a nutshell - is where the issue starts. 

We’ve been duped into believing that by doing the right thing and putting our plastic waste in the recycling bin, that the plastic will ACTUALLY be recycled.  

But here’s the thing: there’s no guarantee that it actually will – the UK exports around 60% of its plastic waste for recycling, and it’s very difficult to reliably know what happens to it once it leaves our shores.

What’s clear is that this model is not sustainable, and as a country we need to take urgent action. 

If the foreign recycling markets dry up, which many think will happen imminently, what will actually happen to our plastic waste? 

It will likely stay in the UK, but with no capacity to do anything with it, there’s a distinct possibility it will end up in landfill. 

Which is precisely the opposite of what you expect to happen when you put your plastic in the “recycling” bin.

Now, whilst recycling abroad is better than landfill anywhere, I’m struggling to find an argument against increasing (perhaps dramatically) our plastic recycling capacity in the UK. 

You’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “This is terrible, John, but what are we – as individuals – supposed to do about it?”

It’s very easy to think that there’s nothing we can do – that the system is too big and too established – but I don’t subscribe to that idea.

Sure, if there are only a few people taking action, it won’t make much of a dent in the problem, and the problem is multi-faceted anyway, so there’s no “quick fix”. 

But for me, it’s individual action that starts the process and can start to make things snowball.

Here are just a few things we can all do to make a difference:

  • When you’re shopping, see whether there’s an alternative to that single use plastic container.
  • Think about planning ahead so that the convenience of grabbing a packet of something becomes unnecessary.
  • Write to your MP and ask them to standardise recycling and up the UK capacity to deal with the plastic waste.
  • Let your supermarket know that you’re not happy with the amount of plastic that is used in their packaging. Start with the easy stuff – fruit & veg can be loose and put in paper or better still, reusable bags.
  • Stop using plastic carrier bags. There’s no need for them and there are plenty of alternatives.  These things hang around for hundreds of years and their average number of uses is less than two!

I’ll be doing a lot more to communicate practical stuff that you can do to help, but for now, here’s something you may not know, which I found out a few weeks ago.  What do you understand by this symbol, found on many products?

If you think it means that the product can be recycled, you’re not alone.  Until a few weeks ago, I did too.

I was wrong. 

“The Green Dot” does not mean that the packaging is necessarily recyclable at all – it merely means that the manufacturer has contributed financially to support the effort to collect and recycle common products.

So next time you see it – don’t assume that all is well, because the chances are it’s not.

Remember: reduce, reuse, recycle.  These things start at home – get your house in order and then lobby the government to sort out theirs.

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