EcoBabble: Is recycling actually helping or harming the planet?

Written by

Hannah Robbins

Posted on

July 20, 2020

Of the 8.3bn tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled.

When you put your recycling bin out on bin day, that’s it really – once collected, it’s out of sight out of mind. Some faceless organisation within your local council will sort it out, right?

But considering the above… what is happening to it?

In this month’s club column, we’ll be diving into the world of waste management and finding out if recycling is really making a difference.

A bit of background on waste and recycling

The UK produces more waste than it can process at home – 230m tonnes per year, which averages out to be about 1.1kg per person. Specifically in 2018, UK homes generated 26.4 million tonnes of waste – of which 45% of was sent for recycling (a decrease of 0.7% from 2017 data). Note that that doesn’t say it was actually recycled.

In 2018-19, nearly half (43.8%) of waste collected by local authorities from households in England was burnt according to government figure – that’s 11.2m tonnes of waste incinerated. This is just over a 12% increase from a decade earlier, meaning incineration was the largest single municipal waste management method, overtaking recycling and composting.

In general, the UK exports roughly two thirds of plastic and half of paper and cardboard recycling abroad – pre-2018, you’d have probably seen reports of our waste ending up mainly in China, as they dominated the market. However in 2018, China made major changes to its policies on what it would accept on import, arguing that it was just too contaminated to process efficiently. The policy prohibits 24 types of waste including polyethylene terephthalate (PET) drinks bottles, other post-consumer plastic waste, unsorted mixed paper, and several types of used textiles.

This was a major shifting point for the UK’s waste management system – we’d been exporting waste to China for some 20 years for processing. The price of plastics plummeted after this, so much so that it wasn’t financially worth recycling. Post-2018, countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia were quickly drowned in our waste and we saw the worlds highest rates of “waste mismanagement” – rubbish left in illegal sites, burned in open landfills, or processed by facilities with inefficient reporting in place, making waste difficult to trace it’s “final destination”.

It’s not just the quantity of waste that’s the problem

It’s also the quality – waste contamination is putting items in recycling that do not belong there. It could be your partner at home putting yet another greasy Styrofoam takeaway container in the recycling bin (only me?) or even large companies and corporations smuggling contaminated items in their shipments of waste. Remember Biffa’s smuggling of nappies and sanitary waste into a “mixed paper” shipment to China?

Whatever the cause or “perpetrator”, waste contamination has, and likely always will be a problem. It started in the late 70’s when we began trying to recycle household waste – it was contaminated with all sorts of non-recyclables, food waste, oils, and liquids that spoil the batches.

Simultaneously though, plastic packaging began to boom – almost everything came in some sort of hard plastic container, shrink wrapped in more plastic, with plastic coated sticky labels.

According to a research article from Science Advances published in 2017, 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic has been produced to date. They estimated:

“As of 2015, approximately 6300 metric tonnes (Mt) of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly [12 billion] Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.”

In case you struggle to comprehend those figures (I’ll admit, it took me a double take to drink that in) essentially if nothing were to change, 12 billion tonnes of plastic waste will be in landfill or polluting our oceans and land across the world by 2050.

Mixed material packaging is the worst kind

Another common issue is mixed materials – items and packaging that combine several different types of materials, including plastics.  These, according to sustainability experts, is the worst kind of material when it comes to recycling, as they’re even more expensive to process because they need separating.  Tom Carpenter, executive director of Waste Management’s sustainability services says:

“When things are mixed together, you devalue the product. If I had two boxes, and one is all cardboard, the other box had metal strips, the second would be too costly to recycle.”

As a result, plastic recycling can complicate how companies label their packaging and even whether a recyclable product is actually recyclable in your local area, as many UK local authorities do it differently.

There are a range of recycling symbols labelled across packaging – and they mean a wide range of things. Their ambiguity is a pain point amongst us consumers. I know I’m not alone in saying I’ve lost track of what symbol means what! I can’t even count on two hands how many times I’ve hesitated to put something in the recycling bin, even with my district council’s helpful leaflet to hand. Also, remember aforementioned partner with greasy Styrofoam container? Yeah…

I have learned a lot in writing about plastic, waste and recycling though – and in true SaveMoneyCutCarbon fashion, we’ve broken down exactly what the most common recycling symbols mean in our Guide to Recycling, available for you, our wonderful Home Club members.

Does recycling plastic have a carbon-reduction benefit?

Not only that, but the carbon-reduction benefit of recycled plastic is unclear – plastic packaging is much more complicated to recycle than say, aluminium.

Making a can from recycled aluminium reduces its carbon footprint by up to 95% – with plastic, it’s not all that easy. Plastic recycling is complicated, pricey and a high-quality end material cannot always be guaranteed. If it’s a contaminated batch, depending on the level, it’ll produce a much lower quality material or worse, be incinerated.

Roland Geyer, lead author of the above Science Advances paper and professor of industrial ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara says:

“You ship it around, then you have to wash it, then you have to chop it up, then you have to re-melt it, so the collection and recycling itself has its own environmental impact.”

However this shouldn’t detract from the obvious carbon benefit of recycling plastic – the fact that it’s not producing virgin plastic, and doesn’t extract more non-renewable resources (i.e. petroleum) from the earth. Additionally, no new drilling for oil is required to produce recycled plastic, preventing the destruction of more wildlife and their habitats.

There’s also the fact that recycling is about more than just saving carbon emissions. There are other benefits too – that it reduces landfill, litter and ocean plastic.

It’s important to look at the bigger picture, and consider the net savings.

You’re probably asking yourself now: what’s the point of recycling?

There is a point – it’s not all hopeless. I appreciate you’ve just read a most depressing chunk of information regarding recycling and pollution, but this is not where the conversation ends. Recycling DOES matter and it WILL make a difference.

The key takeaway from the above should be that we mustn’t rely solely on recycling to save the planet. I’m actually going to counter some of the arguments I’ve already made here:

Should I bother recycling at all, if I can’t be sure it’s actually being recycled by my local council?

Yes – you absolutely should take the time to recycle. We harp on about small changes making a big impact, and that is still true. The infrastructure has yet to catch up fully yet – but by putting pressure on organisations, councils and the government to do better, we must keep recycling as much as we can to demonstrate the demand. Check our recycling guide for more information on how to efficiently recycle, and use RecycleNow’s great “What to do with…” library to find out what’s recyclable in your area. Be sure to check your local council’s website too!

Should we avoid plastic entirely?

This is a tricky one – a good rule of thumb is, if there is an alternative to plastic that works just as well for you, go for it; but choosing to avoid plastic altogether is difficult.

For example, if you’re living alone, buying food wrapped in plastic helps reduce your food waste where fresh vegetables and fruit is concerned – as they last longer. But if your household has more people, say 4 members, you may find buying unwrapped produce may work better because it will get eaten in good time anyways.

No, you may not be able to avoid plastic altogether – but there are certainly a wide range of opportunities for you to drastically reduce your plastic usage to compensate for areas where you’re unable to.

Does this mean I shouldn’t buy from my favourite brands, if they don’t have recyclable packaging as an option?

It’s true to say that many brands and companies have yet to catch up with the sustainability of their packaging – you may be seeing the greener options out there more and more, but we’ve still got a long way to go. If you’re not willing or not able to switch up everything you buy in your weekly shops though, that doesn’t mean you can’t do your bit. Making changes where it’s feasible for you to do so is important – both for your health and your lifestyle.

For example, personally I’ve found that only a specific brand of anti-dandruff shampoo will help calm my scalp and prevent flareups – so to offset that choice by switching as many other of my bathroom products as I can to sustainably sourced versions, like using a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one. Find the balance.

If the carbon reduction of recycled plastic isn’t as clear, should we stray away from items made from it?

No, using recycled plastic is still a good option – remember our 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic? And the fact that plastic can take a minimum of 450 years to degrade? Plastic isn’t going to be going anywhere any time soon – it’s already got a hefty carbon footprint to cart around. It’s also worth remembering that whilst the majority of plastic use has been pushed on us through capitalism and consumerism, there is still an argument to be made to its effectiveness as a material. There are lots of items that just simple don’t work as well when not made from a plastic of some kind.

If you’re worried about buying plastic, do your research into the brand or business you’re buying from. Do they recognise the environmental impact of their business? Have they explained why recycled plastic was their material of choice? What else do they do to minimise their environmental impact?

Shopping in an eco-conscious way, supporting businesses and brands where possible that are making sustainable changes and pushing through change is a good way to help reduce your impact.

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