Plastic is not fantastic – the dirty secret of where our recycling really goes

Manufacturers should be forced to use compostable packaging by law.

That’s my opinion and I think it’s a pretty good one.  British households throw 22 million tonnes of waste into the bin each year.  That’s a staggering amount.  I bet a lot of that is packaging as I know that’s where the majority of our household waste comes from.  We have a serious problem with waste, packaging and recycling in this country and in fact, worldwide.  But in the UK we should have the resources and money to deal with this problem effectively.  Sadly, we are not.  In my opinion, we are not effectively dealing with plastic pollution, landfill waste or even recycling.

After sharing a blog post on Twitter that I wrote about how to reduce plastic consumption, a reader tweeted me to suggest I watch the documentary Dirty Business (click to watch it free on YouTube.)

Let me tell you, I was shocked by what I saw!

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What I thought happened to recycling

Today, outside my house, my recycling bin is waiting to be collected.  It’s emptied by the council every two weeks and it’s usually half full to completely full of recyclable packaging.  I assumed, as I’m sure many of us do, that everything in that bin will get a new life.  My previous unknowledgeable guess was that it is sorted by the council by separating it into different materials, then sold to different companies that can magically make it into a raw useable material again.  I honestly had no idea what happened to it, but I think most of us just guess this sort of scenario.  The council take it and sort it, then it all goes somewhere to be made into the raw materials again and made into something new.

I was doing my bit by putting it into the bin and I assumed my council tax payments went towards the council sorting it and ensuring everything that could be reused and recycled was.

What really happens to UK recycling

So you can imagine my shock when I watched the Sky News 2018 documentary Dirty Business and discovered on a global scale 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced every year, 14% of that is collected for recycling and only 2% is actually recycled!   Around 16% of plastic produced ends up burnt and around 40% of it goes to landfill.

Read that again.  Let it sink in.  Only 2% of the plastic produced around the world is recycled.

That means approximately 76.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging that is produced around the world each year is never recycled.

So before this documentary, I have seen images of plastic in developing countries and just naively assume that they have this problem as they are a poor country and don’t have the same recycling infrastructure as we do.  Much of that plastic and waste I see in these images is probably from the UK too!

What I didn’t realise is that we have no proper recycling system in our country either.  Most of our recycling actually gets shipped abroad to other countries.  Some of it goes to China where they can turn the plastic into something new, but they are very strict with what they will accept – good quality clean plastic.  This is for a good reason too – they don’t want to be a dumping ground for all the low quality dirty plastic they have no use for.  China have imposed a strict import ban and now regulate what is sent to them.  It means there is a lot of plastic they won’t accept and so we send it to other countries instead.

The problem is, we are not sorting it properly and sending large mixed bundles of dirty plastic and other waste that these countries do not have the resources to sort of or dispose of.  So much of this ‘recycling’ is just sitting there for years.  We are not dealing with our recycling, but just shipping it to other poorer countries who can’t manage it either.  They are burning it or treating it in a way that is polluting the environment.  Again, it’s not all getting recycled.  Very little is being recycled.

Out of sight, out of mind.

That’s all we’re doing to our recycling.

So how can we begin to tackle this issue?

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The problem starts with the packaging

I really think the problem starts with the packaging that is being used for products and something needs to change.  Of course, we should also be dealing with our own packaging waste and not shipping it off to other countries unless we are satisfied it’s being recycled in a safe manner, but from the documentary I share in the opening paragraph, this is not the case.  It’s being shipped out of our country for us to hit recycling targets, yet most of it is never recycled and is just sat polluting and causing more waste in another country.

Anyway, I believe the problem starts with the packaging itself.  I am shocked that companies are still allowed to use packaging that can’t be recycled.  This should be the first thing to change.  A law should be passed that only recyclable packaging can be used to tackle landfill waste and to stop there being low quality plastic that’s not accepted by countries that can reuse the plastic.

A law should also be passed that all packaging must be recycled by the consumer and not put into landfill bins.  But this all needs to be made much simpler and councils need to accept everything that can be recycled and not just pick and choose.  Imagine – if we can only create packaging and items that can be recycled and reused then eventually there would be no such thing as landfill waste.  That would be an ideal world!

The UK needs to take responsibility for its recycling.  It should never be shipped off to a country where we don’t know what happens to it.

A move to only use compostable packaging should begin.  I have purchased from brands before, such as Inspiral, that use compostable packaging which I assume is made from plant sources.  This is a much better idea!  It can clearly be done, but no one is enforcing this, otherwise everyone would be doing it.

If all packaging was compostable and made from natural sources, then it would be able to go in a home compost bin, added to food waste bins or even if it ended up in landfill then it would not have a negative environmental impact.

I assume the cost is higher which is why companies are not yet making this move to natural plant based compostable packaging, and so it must be cheaper to use plastic packaging.  This is wrong and the government needs to enforce a change in packaging.  We know compostable packaging is possible, so why aren’t more companies using it?

What always shocks me is how the small independent companies are the ones using this sort of packaging, yet the huge companies who have the money and resources to really make the change and set an example aren’t doing it.  They are the ones that the masses buy from and they are the ones who are responsible for so much recycling waste and landfill waste.  If large companies who can make large orders of this sort of packaging start making the change, then surely it will begin to bring the cost down and others will also follow suit.

Also, another major issue is that too much packaging is being used.  There are some pears in my local supermarket that come in a polystyrene tray (non-recyclable), with a plastic top (recyclable) in a plastic wrapper (non-recyclable).  It’s so unnecessary!  That’s three different pieces of packaging for a pack of four pears and two aren’t even recyclable!  How about one compostable bag instead?  Or keeping all fruit and veg like this loose, with paper bags if needed?

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What UK consumers think about the state of recycling

Pretty much everything about recycling frustrates me.  The fact that companies still use non-recyclable packaging.  The fact that large companies aren’t changing to compostable packaging or setting an example.  The fact that companies are using too much packaging and unnessecary packaging.  The fact that recycling can be tricky for consumers.  The fact that recyclable packaging isn’t even recycled – we just ship it abroad and it just sits there.  There are so many problems with the recycling and packaging system currently.

I discovered that a company called Seareach actually carried out a poll of 3000 UK consumers asking them “what frustrates you most about recycling?” and they discovered many people are fed up with companies using too much packaging as well as being confused about what is and isn’t recyclable.

Here are the results:

  • Manufacturers using too much packaging (39%)
  • Not knowing what you can and can’t recycle (24%)
  • Lack of local recycling options (11%)
  • Onus on the consumer, not manufacturers (11%)
  • Poor recycling labels (6%)
  • Confusing information (6%)

Here’s what consumers want to see:

  • Recycling at supermarkets for all packaging (68%)
  • Consistent and understandable labelling (67%)
  • Councils to be more transparent about recycling (65%)
  • Apps to scan barcodes for recycling info (38%)

This makes me think that as well as our recycling not always being recycled, we too are often throwing away things that could have a new life simply because we are unable to recycle them or are unclear on what can be recycled.

Basically, I believe that if it can be recycled then the council should have a duty to recycle it.  Otherwise recyclable items are going to end up in landfill.  Some people have no other means than to recycle from their homes.  There may be no other recycling facilities near them – as an example, our local supermarket got rid of all their recycling points last year!  They may not have transport, they may be old or immobile.  If the council are collecting from our homes then they should have to collect everything that can be recycled, not just pick and choose what they will and won’t collect.

Recycling at supermarkets should definitely be an option.  We often used the recycling at our local supermarket, but they have removed all the bins now due to fly tipping.  Fair enough, the fly tipping was a problem, but tackle that problem instead of just removing all the recycling bins and creating another!

Councils should definitely be more transparent about recycling.  As should the government and recycling companies themselves.  There needs to be a big change.  It shouldn’t take a documentary to show everyone what’s really going on, but we should be informed about where our recycling goes anyway.  If it were all transparent then perhaps people would be more inclined to do the right thing instead of consumers throwing recyclable waste into landfill and recycling companies shipping off waste to other countries where they know it’s not being recycled.

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