This article appeared in The Conversation on September 20th 2020:
The UK Government’s statutory guidance is supposed to clarify how recycled plastics should be dealt with but it is far from clear. Research reported by The Conversation indicates that each local authority commissions a different agency and recycling methods vary enormously. They suggest that the secrecy surrounding the disposal of plastics is the next big scandal waiting to be exposed.
A government briefing paper from March 2020 stated that 91% of the five million tonnes of plastics used in the UK each year is “sent towards treatment”. This does not mean it is actually recycled, just that it went to a waste management company. Even so, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the recycling rate for single-use plastics was 29% in 2018.
A 2018 report by the Local Government Association found only one-third of plastics collected from households can be recycled, due to contamination, low-grade and mixed materials and technical difficulties.
The National Audit Office, an independent body responsible for auditing government departments, claimed in 2018 that there was a sixfold increase in exports of packaging material for recycling abroad between 2002 and 2017. Exports accounted for half of all packaging reported as recycled in 2017. So what happened to all of it?
Exporting the problem
According to industry experts, many businesses that call themselves recycling companies actually only sort waste and then sell it on, often via brokers, towards unknown destinations. Few have their own recycling facilities, and many refuse to say where the plastics go, claiming this is commercially sensitive information.
The UK exports large quantities of plastics to other countries, including Turkey, Egypt and Malaysia. These countries lack the facilities to recycle their own plastics, let alone plastics from elsewhere. Little wonder that most plastics Turkey promises to recycle are actually burned or dumped. Turkey’s recycling capacity in 2019 was claimed to be 850,000 tonnes whereas almost 600,000 tonnes were imported from EU countries. The UK alone exported half a million tonnes in 2019, according to the government’s own source. But an independent report in 2019 suggests that figure is closer to 700,000 tonnes.
Even just talking about “plastic waste” obscures how diverse the materials involved are, and how complicated the inevitable recycling process is. For example TetraPaks – the drink cartons you probably buy milk or orange juice in. Some 68% of councils collect them from the kerbside, but there are few facilities worldwide equipped to recycle them. The UK has only one, built in 2013, that can process 25,000 tonnes a year. But the UK produces about 60,000 tonnes of these cartons annually. Yet, the facility is running under capacity, according to an email they sent us. So most drink cartons must either be exported or have only their cardboard recycled, as they also contain low-density polyethylene (about 21%) and aluminium foil (4%) which are difficult to separate.
COVID-19 has made the UK’s recycling problem much worse. The use of single-use plastics, including disposable masks and other PPE, has prompted a steep increase during the pandemic. Online shopping, with all the additional packaging, has risen too, while recycling in developing countries and elsewhere has halted. All of these factors have increased the amount of plastic waste the UK exports, and increased the likelihood that it will be dumped.
What can be done?
Exporting plastic waste should be forbidden without clear proof it will be recycled. The public needs to be alerted to this growing problem, so that the government is forced to create a legal framework, with enforceable regulations, ensuring British plastics are responsibly recycled in Britain.
Plastics recycling comes in many shapes and forms. There are mechanical and chemical processes for recycling the many different types. Most processes require plastics to be clean and separated by type, but there are also processes such as pyrolysis that can process mixed and contaminated plastics, including printed films.
To deal with all of our plastics, the UK needs to build an integrated plastics recycling facility that can deal with all these in every part of the country.
As a last resort, the unrecyclable leftover waste could be burned in an incinerator to generate energy. These are common in continental Europe, but the UK seems to prefer landfill, with incinerator projects regularly rejected.
Though not perfect, incineration in Britain would be a vast improvement on the current situation, where plastics are shipped to the other side of the planet only to be dumped and burned illegally.
September 17th 2020:
In an article for The Guardian this week, Arwa Mahdawi, exposes the fact that plastics recycling is a scam anyway, invented by the manufacturers to move the blame to people, rather than themselves:
“According to one analysis, only 9% of all plastic ever made has likely been recycled. Here’s the kicker: the companies making all that plastic have spent millions on advertising campaigns lecturing us about recycling while knowing full well that most plastic will never be recycled.
A new investigation by National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) reports that the large oil and gas companies that manufacture plastics have known for decades that recycling plastic was unlikely to ever happen on a broad scale because of the high costs involved. “They were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material,” Larry Thomas, former president of one of the plastic industry’s most powerful trade groups, told NPR. There is a lot more money to be made in selling new plastic than reusing the old stuff. But, in order to keep selling new plastic, the industry had to clean up its wasteful image. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Thomas noted. And so a huge amount of resources were diverted into intricate “sustainability theatre”.
Multinationals misleading people for profit? Hold the front page! While the plastics industry’s greenwashing will come as no surprise to anyone, the extent of the deception alleged in NPR’s investigation is truly shocking. (I should state for the record that an industry representative interviewed by NPR contested the idea that the public was intentionally misled, although he does “understand the scepticism”.)
The subterfuge around recycling plastic is also an important reminder of just how cynically and successfully big companies have shifted the burden of combating the climate crisis on to individuals. This might be best encapsulated in a famous ad campaign that aired in the US during the 1970s with the slogan “People Start Pollution. People can stop it.” The campaign was created by a non-profit group called Keep America Beautiful, which happened to be heavily funded by beverage and packaging companies with a vested interest in convincing people that they were the ones to blame for a polluted planet, not capitalism.”