The Truth About Recycling

Rita Steyn

You’re probably familiar with the 4 R’s: Refuse, Reuse, Reduce and RECYCLE. But everything you’ve been told about recycling is wrong. Often suggested as the solution to plastic waste, recycling is actually very low down on the waste hierarchy, and should always be viewed as a last resort. Recently, recycling has come under scrutiny, and for good reason. Read on to find out why...

Recycling Rates

Recycling rates for plastic are shockingly low. Of all the plastic waste ever produced, only 9% has been recycled, a number which won statistic of the year. Around 12% has been incinerated, and the rest (79%) has accumulated in landfills, or found its way into the environment. The number is so low, because most of the plastic produced between 1950 and the early 2000’s was never recycled. On top of that, plastic production then increased exponentially and is still increasing today.

So why hasn’t plastic all this plastic been recycled?

There are 7 broad categories of plastic types, but in fact there are thousands of different plastics, each with their own composition and properties. Different types of plastic need to be separated before recycling, in order to ensure the same type of plastic is being melted down together, as mixtures of plastics (polymer blends) tend to have a lower quality.

Over-enthusiastic recyclers are doing more harm than good by throwing all types of plastic into the recycling in a bid to reduce waste. The problem lies in the lack of standardisation on plastic recycling across counties, states, and countries. In the UK there are 408 councils, and 39 different sets of rules for recycling, so it’s no surprise that we’re all confused about what can and can’t be recycled. Whilst councils such as Cambridge have facilities that can sort plastic bags and films, others do not have the more advanced technology needed to separate these.

Symbols on packaging can give mixed messages too. You may see any of the following symbols on products, which each have very different meanings:

The first symbol indicates a plastic can be recycled. The second uncompleted circle means it can be recycled in some areas, so you need to check locally. The number within the triangle in the third image indicates the SPI resin code, not that the plastic can be recycled. Typically plastics with an SPI resin code of 1, 2 and 5 are widely recycled, code 4 is sometimes recycled, and 3, 6, and 7 are almost never recycled. The ‘Green Dot’ is the most misleading symbol, and does not mean anything about the recyclability of the packaging or product. What is does mean is that the manufacturer or brand has contributed money to fund recycling projects.

To make it even more confusing, some packaging says ‘not currently recycled’, but can actually be recycled in some areas. So it’s always best to check your local council website.

Plastic bottles are made from PET (SPI 1) and can be easily recycled. Photo: Pixabay

Plastic bottles are made from PET (SPI 1) and can be easily recycled. Photo: Pixabay

You’ve managed to decide what’s what, and your recycling bin gets collected, now what?

Becky and Amanda Price from Do it for David, took a trip to their local recycling plant in Shropshire. Here mixed recycling passes through a big ‘tumble dryer’ to remove glass, and past nimble workers who remove plastic bags, screw tops and other items. Metal is removed using magnetics, and finally the left over plastic is scanned and blown onto different conveyor belts by a puff of air, before being squished into bales.

They asked some important questions, and “learned that both glass and metal can be recycled endlessly, however plastic downgrades each time it is recycled and becomes less valuable as it has fewer uses.” They were also told “black plastic is essentially at the bottom of the pile and is not financially viable to recycle”, it’s also extremely hard to separate because the sensors can’t identify and sort it.

You can read the full account of their experience here and find out what else they discovered!

So the plastic has been sorted, and now it gets recycled. Or does it?

You may not realise that many recycling facilities don’t actually recycle the waste – they just sort it and sell it on. The plastic waste is sold with the expectation that the buyer will reuse it in some way, but nonetheless the seller no longer feels responsible. Out of sight, out of mind - right?!

A lot of plastic waste from the UK, US, Australia and Canada goes to countries in the Global South, where it can be processed cheaply and for profit. The largest importer of plastic waste was China but in January 2018 they began to refuse large amounts of previously accepted plastic waste, and will only accept recycling with contamination levels of no more than 0.5%.

1) The world’s largest importers of plastic waste in 2016. 2) Malaysia is now the top importer of plastic waste from the U.S. Photos: Statista

So what did we decide to do? Ship our plastic to other Asian countries, instead of dealing with it ourselves. Malaysia has now become the largest importer of plastic waste, despite already struggling to effectively manage its own. Illegal dumping sites and burning are now common occurrences in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, leading to respiratory problems in local residents, and contamination of local waterways.

Plastic waste is being dumped illegally in many Asian countries. Photo: Pixabay

Plastic waste is being dumped illegally in many Asian countries. Photo: Pixabay

We need to change the whole system of recycling

There has been a massive emphasis on increasing recycling as more and more people begin to realise the plastic problem is a serious one. But we need to ensure we are ACTUALLY recycling, not just sending our waste off somewhere in the hope that someone else will deal with it. Responsibility needs to be shifted to the manufacturers. They should be the ones taking recycling and making new products with it directly, to form a closed loop system.

So what is the solution?

Recycling is still an important way to address plastic waste, especially since recycling keeps materials out of landfills, and prevents resources from being wasted. Choosing products made of, or packaged in, recycled plastic can also save thousands of liters of water, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions. Recycling one tonne of plastic bottles can save enough energy to power a two person household for up to a year.

But, with our plastic ‘recycling’ being dumped in foreign countries, causing environmental pollution and affecting local residents, the best thing you can do is to reduce the amount of plastic you are using, and reuse the plastic you already have, to limit the amount you are adding to the system. Why not get inventive and try some upcycling at home?


Watch this video to find out where our recycling goes, or catch The War on Plastic on BBC iPlayer.

This month, The Marine Diaries will be sharing our knowledge on plastic pollution to help educate the public about the impact of our actions on marine life, in the hope of promoting change. Together we can fight plastic.

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