The Problem with Recycling

The issue of ocean plastics and the other environmental concerns over plastics have risen rapidly up the sustainability agenda in recent years. Meaning that consumers and companies alike are taking a critical view on their use and the destination of the plastics we use.

Here in the UK, there has been much focus on increasing the household recycling rates of waste in general, and plastics in particular, in order to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. So what actually happens to the majority of plastics that we use?

The headline household recycling rate for the UK was 45.7% in 2017 up from 40.4% in 2010 (the latest figures available). That does not sound too bad, does it? Especially when you consider that the proportion of plastic recycling has probably gone up due to the greater use of plastics over those 7 years.  However, there is a significant opportunity to improve that percentage for a number of reasons. 

The recycling rate is not the amount recycled.

This 45.7 % is the amount of waste that is sent for recycling – not what is actually recycled.  Some materials like PET drink bottles can be recycled here in the UK and turned into new bottles – but that is the exception rather than the rule. Much of the other plastics have been shipped to countries like China and Malaysia for ‘recycling’ until China banned accepting plastic rubbish from other countries (see later for an explanation of this).  Little is known about how much of that plastic waste actually is recycled – certainly some of it ends up in landfill or is burnt. 

What we put in our recycling bin may not get recycled

The feel-good factor of putting plastic in our recycling bin may be just that – a feel-good factor. Some people call it ‘wish’-cycling, not quite knowing whether the items they are putting in the recycle bin are, or can be, recycled. If plastics are clean, they have a chance to be recycled and even recycled back into the exactly same material it was originally. However, even experts say it is difficult to know how clean materials have to be in order to be recycled. But how clean is clean? Certainly, a difficult decision for the householder. Recycling that is contaminated will go on to produce less high-quality materials (down-cycling) or be sent for incineration or landfill.  Sending good quality plastics to be made into garden furniture, for example, is not a smart use of our resources. Recycling by name only.
If you need more evidence, recently the UK Local Government Association said that only a third of plastics put in the recycling bin can be recycled. The rest get sent to landfill. For example, this may be because some plastic types cannot be recycled or for other reasons – such as the fact that black food trays cannot be recycled.
It also depends where you live. The famous postcode lottery. Some local councils have very comprehensive recycling facilities and forward-thinking recycling partners – others may just do the basics.
And what happens if we leave the bottle top on the plastic bottle? Will the whole bottle get recycled or rejected? What about trigger spray heads – can I put them in the recycling bin? There is still much confusion among the public about what to do for the best.

Implications for other countries

The UK and other countries have relied heavily on China to take unwanted plastics and ‘recycle’ them. Three years ago, the UK was exporting half a million tonnes of plastic to China/Hong Kong. Since then, China has introduced a ban on accepting foreign waste.  The move was an effort to halt a deluge of soiled and contaminated materials that was overwhelming Chinese processing facilities and leaving the country with yet another environmental problem. There were health impacts, too, on the workers that sorted through the contaminated plastics which has been highlighted in a film (which is incidentally banned in China) called Plastic China.  There is some speculation that publicly like this contributed to the import ban.

Now, Malaysia is taking up the slack and importing more of UK plastic waste. However, there are concerns that Malaysia does not have the infrastructure to process the waste and there are reports that low-grade plastic ends up in landfill and some even burnt in the open.

So though exporting our problem plastic removes a problem for the West it causes a problem for the East.

Implications and take-home messages

  1. Definitions around recycling have to change

Rather than being theoretically recyclable, a plastic has to be practically recyclable. The new definition by Ellen Macarthur Foundation is really helpful:

“A packaging or a packaging component is recyclable if post-consumer collection, sorting, and recycling is proven to work in practise and at scale… A package can be considered recyclable if its main packaging components, together representing more than 95% of the entire packaging weight, are recyclable according to the above definition, and if the remaining minor components are compatible with the recycling process and do not hinder the recyclability of the main components…”

There is nothing to stop companies and brands adopting this now. 

  1. Product manufacturers need to take more ownership

Specifically about what happens to their plastic packaging. The fact that packaging has a  ‘widely recycled’ label on it does not mean that it will be recycled. Manufacturers and brand owners need to have confidence that the plastic packaging they put on the market has the practical ability and likelihood that it will be recycled. This means knowledge of the downstream processing of their packaging.

  1. Manufacturers need to deliver better packaging Design

Brand owners should factor in sustainability in their packaging design decisions. It is not enough to just design with the appeal to consumers in mind but take into account the impact on the recycling supply chain. For example, black food trays are still used even though they can’t be recycled because the technology used cannot detect the plastic type because they are black. Elimination of mixed materials is another example including labels, as is moving towards reusable pump and trigger sprays.

The good news is that there is plenty of free guidance

  1. Regulation and incentives

Yes, regulation can help here. The government could enforce certain packaging material guidelines in order to optimise the existing and planned recycling infrastructure.

And it can incentivise the development of recycling technologies that can be cost-effectively operated within the UK for the plastics that we now export to places like Malaysia. Moving to a closed-loop system in our continent or country would be a massive step forward.

I agree with  a spokesperson from the British Plastics Federation when they said: “At the moment there’s no fiscal or monetary system in the UK that makes designers go for the really good-to-recycle designs and those who make packs which are less easy to recycle.” It may help if there was a carrot or stick to guide packaging design including reform of the Packaging Recovery Note system.

So, there are clearly challenges to be addressed which are not impossible to solve. It will require a combination of actions to make progress. The good news is that we know what to do.