Over the last few years, it has become increasingly clear that we can not recycle ourselves out of our current plastic problem. In fact, the current recycling system for plastics is one of the big contributors to plastic pollution around the world.  

Of the more than six billion tonnes of plastic waste produced by 2015, only 9 per cent has ever been recycled. Of the rest, almost all of it is now in the landfill or the natural environment (79 per cent) with the remainder incinerated.  

The UK’s official plastic packaging recycling rate is just 39 per cent – although research organisation Eunomia believe this to be much lower than reported.  That means more than 60% of all the plastic we use is ending up in landfill, incinerated – or worse, in our environment and oceans.  With the tragic news of yet another whale found dead with a belly full of plastic, it’s clear we have a very serious problem we’re not going to recycle our way out of.

City to Sea are committed to preventing plastic pollution at source – reducing the need for recycling in the first place by advocating reuse and providing practical solutions to the single-use water bottles such as our Refill campaign.

Why recycling plastic is hard 

For some products, recycling is an effective solution. Aluminium cans and glass, for example, are infinitely recyclable and can be reprocessed in the UK.  But for plastics, it’s a different story 

For one thing, there are so many types of plastic it makes it hard to sort correctly. Consumers inadvertently mix recyclable and non-recyclable plastics in the same box, which contaminates the load and requires there to be further sorting and segregating, which not all collectors do, and effects the value and re-usability of the plastic when it’s resold.  

Most people believe that putting out the plastic each week is helping the environment; although many are unaware the complexity of the processing required and the diligence of contractors required to make sure materials do actually get reprocessed effectively.  

Most people are trying their best to recycle plastic – but the many different ways in which recycling is collected by councils across the UK has left them confused over what can be recycled and what can’t. Read our essential guide to recycling for more information on recycling logos and what they mean.

What happens to our plastic waste? 

We only reprocess 1/3rd of our plastic recycling in the UK, so once plastic waste enters the system, it is sorted and then put up for sale on the international commodities market to be shipped around the world. Depending on the quality of the load―e.g. how many types of plastic it includes, how dirty they are―and the reputation of the waste handler, there are a number of different things that can then happen.  

If the quality is good enough, the plastics are re-purposed. This means downcycling them into plastic furniture, drain pipes or fleece clothing, which then can’t be recycled afterwards.  

If the quality is poor, the plastics that can be used are extracted and the rest end up being burned or dumped.  

And, if they’re bought by unscrupulous reprocesses in countries where environmental laws are lax, this dumped and incinerated waste can end up in the local environment, contaminating rivers and making its way to the sea.  

Historically, China is where most of the world’s plastic has ended up. It’s no coincidence that more than half of all the plastic pollution carried from the rivers to the ocean comes from the Yangtze. But at the end of 2017 China closed its doors to the most contaminated loads, putting the burden back on the rest of the world. 

What the future holds for recycling and plastic 

Whilst governments and environmental agencies investigate the issues of the plastics recycling industry around the world. The obvious solution to our plastic problem is to produce and use less of it.  

Several EU and UK laws will come into force in the next few years requiring manufacturers to take more responsibility for their materials. And the UK Government’s Waste and Resources Strategy proposes taxing companies that don’t have a minimum of 30 per cent recycled content in their plastics.  

Voluntary initiatives like the UK Plastics Pact and The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment also keep the pressure on to create a more ‘circular economy’. 

At City to Sea we appreciate that some of the issues surrounding recycling are being addressed by the New Plastics Economy Commitment, Plastics Pact and the Waste and Resources Strategy however, we feel there should be a greater focus on the reusability of materials. Whilst recycling is obviously a fantastic solution for dealing with some of the plastics we need, we need to reduce the sheer volume of single-use plastics and shift away from our throwaway culture to value the products we have and start refilling and reusing over recycling.

What you can do  

    • Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Refill and only then opt for Recycling. Check out our top 12 ways to reduce single-use plastic here.
    • Where reusables aren’t an option, choose materials that have a clear waste stream such as recycled card, paper, aluminium and glass.
    • Tell the Government that you want to see meaningful change with their consultations on waste and plastics. See our comments on the plastic bottle Deposit Return Scheme consultation. 
    • Seek out plastic-free packaging suppliers or those using recycled content e.g. Iceland and Lush. 
    • Where plastics are unavoidable ask producers to increase the recycled content to create a proper market for recycled plastics.
    • Join campaigns such as Plastic Attack to highlight pointless packaging in supermarkets.   

Image of recycling bins

Paweł Czerwiński

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