Don’t rely on Recycle. Reduce.
“Recyclable” and “recycled” materials, especially in packaging, get a lot of publicity. Governmental agencies and not-for-profit organisations talk a lot about it. This helps build awareness among consumers and brings pressure on companies to act. Companies announce all sorts of targets and make claims associated with recycling. But what really happens when we put our waste plastic for recycling?
In developed economies, people take reasonable measures at home to help the environment via recycling. Governments and recycling companies invest in infrastructure and processing. More of this is starting to happen in emerging markets too.
For example, in the United Kingdom where I live, the ideal path from our home bins looks something like:
1. We put the packaging waste into the recycling bin which the council provided.
2. The council picks up the waste on the designated day (kerbside collection).
3. It gets to a sorting facility where it gets separated into different material streams.
4. The sorted material is cleaned, processed and recycled into feedstock.
5. The recycled feedstock is sold to converters in the packaging industry, where it replaces virgin materials.
Everybody wins, right?
The UK government has said that they are reaching targets of around 65% of plastic being recycled. In 2020, environmental minister Rebecca Pow said: “...recent packaging recycling rates of 65% demonstrates that there is room for improvement.“
She said “65%” and yet investigative reporters have painted a very different picture. Here is what actually happens to most of the plastic waste from homes in the UK:
1. We put waste into the recycling bins which the council provided.
2. The council picks up the plastic recycling on the designated day.
3. It goes into bales which fill shipping containers.
4. It is shipped to other countries.
5. Most of it goes into dumps which rot and leach into the ground, are set on fire, or further dumped into rivers near the sea.
6. Some of it - typically, the cleanest material without colourants - is recycled.
Until 2018 “other countries” mostly meant China. They closed their doors to plastic waste and so it has been going to Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and Poland. Malaysia has tried to stop the imports too, which puts even more pressure on Turkey.
When your plastic waste docks at Mersin, at the same latitude as Benidorm on the Mediterranean, the containers pass through customs and head to the recycling plants in Turkey. This region of Turkey, like Malaysia and Indonesia is being inundated with plastic waste.
Piles of waste line the roadsides as a lorry carries the container a little inland. Heaps are dumped on river banks and roadsides, or in landfills. This region contributes more plastic pollution to the mediterranean than any other.
Villages in Indonesia and Malaysia sit next to piles of waste twice as high as the houses. One can see a Marks & Spencer bag, next to a Sainsbury’s dish wash container and slightly charred Flora margarine tub.
When plastic is loaded into shipping containers in the UK, it is only allowed to leave if it is marked as going for recycling - but no one checks that it is.
Some of the waste does make it to recycling plants in the countries it goes to, but much of it is left outside to rot and seep chemicals into the land. Even where plastics reach recycling plants, regulations are not enforced strongly and waste water from the process of recycling, dark with various plastic additives, is tipped into rivers and the sea.
So while we would like to believe that our plastic use is not damaging the environment thanks to recycling, the shocking reality is that this is not actually happening. The jouney of our plastic waste is more of a journey across the sea to the sea.
What then, can we do?
Source reduction - i.e., using less material in the first place - is far more effective.
At Packaging for the Future we are experts in reducing plastic for some of the world’s biggest brands. We have helped reduce material use by up to 50%, taking out 100,000 tons of plastic per year so far.
If you’d like to look into more about how Packaging for the Future could help you in reducing the plastic you use, be in touch.
We are open to both commercial and pro-bono projects.