Every year, approximately 13 billion plastic bottles are used in the UK. Around 7.5 billion of those are recycled.
Every year, British households throw 22 million tonnes of waste into the bin.
Recycling rates have stuck at about 44% around the country, despite a UK government target of 50% of household waste being recycled by 2020.
But I’m not writing this to tell you that you need to get more of your friends and family and workplaces to recycle. In fact, we as consumers should not be focusing on recycling more at all. We should be recycling less.
What do you mean we shouldn’t recycle??
Did you know that an astonishing 91% of what we recycle doesn’t actually get recycled. Ninety one percent!
Britain (alongside many other countries in Europe as well as the United States, Japan, and Canada) does not have the requisite infrastructure to recycle its own plastic waste, so it is sent abroad. Or …..it was being sent abroad. That is, until January of 2018, when China banned imports on 24 types of mixed papers and post-consumer plastics, while imposing a prohibitive contamination limit of 0.5% on all other waste imports, a limit so restrictive as to constitute an effective further ban.
Historically British recycling has been sent to China and for years it was the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials. In 2016, it imported 7.3 MILLION tonnes of waste plastics from “developed” countries, including the UK, the United States and Japan.
And since 2012 British companies alone have shipped more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong, accounting for two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports, according to data released last year by Greenpeace.
But what happens when China no longer accepts these recyclables? They end up in landfill in other, smaller countries, or taking up space in UK recycling centres, with nowhere to go to be processed, while the UK tries to figure out what to do with the excess.
So what can I do? Should I stop recycling now?
Definitely not! Keep recycling because at the very least you will be doing what you can to keep waste out of landfill and out of the ocean. Nihilism isn’t the answer! However, be aware of the wider systems at work here.
I’m not pointing all of this out to make anyone feel like all efforts to save the world are useless! But I do write this in hopes of encouraging more people to focus on a few Rs further up the chain of the 5 Rs, rather than putting all your eggs in the recycling basket.
Remember the 5 Rs?
There is a reason that Refuse, Reduce and Reuse all come before Recycling in this framework!
By working to lower our consumption habits in the first place, we can worry less about what is happening to the things we send off to be recycled. As the data shows, much of it isn’t being recycled at all, or it’s just being shipped across the ocean to sit in landfills in countries such as Malaysia and Turkey.
Focus on those first three Rs:
- Refusing what you don’t need in your life (stop buying food wrapped in flimsy plastic, say no to straws at restaurants, don’t put your veggies in the free baggies at the grocery store, decline freebies at work conferences)
- Reducing how much you use of the stuff you do use regularly (do you really need a dozen different spray bottle cleaners for different parts of your house? How many pairs of jeans does a gal or guy need? Do your kids need alllllll the plastic toys?)
- Reusing what you can, when you can (purchasing secondhand clothing, joining a library, using a reusable coffee cup and water bottle)
These are all absolutely integral to lowering the amount of recycling that you send off to (hopefully) be turned into something new and useful.
Don’t be too hard on yourself - the corporations are more to blame anyway
The truth of the situation here is that there is just way too much single-use plastic being produced. And as always, I want to stress that individual actions, while important, are only a part of the problem and therefore only a part of the solution. Corporations must take action to reduce the amount of plastic they’re creating! Coca-Cola alone produces an estimated 110 billion single-use bottles every year around the world and that huge amount is obviously a huge contribution to the 12 million tonnes of plastic that end up in our oceans every year.
Here’s what Greenpeace has to say on the matter:
“Recycling is a really important way of dealing with plastic waste. But ultimately the government needs to take responsibility to ensure that this plastic is properly dealt with. We need the government to support the recycling industry and help tackle plastic pollution – one way of doing this would be introducing UK-wide deposit return schemes (DRS). These cash for bottle schemes – where you pay a little bit extra when you purchase a bottle that is then refunded when the bottle is returned – have been credited with increasing collection rates by up to 90%! Plastic bottles are also a really valuable recycled material. So collecting the 16 million plastic bottles that go unrecycled every day in the UK, can help to support our recycling industry and stem the flow of plastic into our oceans.”
So as usual, there are big players in the game who, so far, are still happily producing single use plastics in the millions. Let’s keep agitating in order to get them to wise up and change their production systems!
And when it comes to our own personal lives, and we know that recycling just isn’t enough, just make sure that you think of recycling as only one part of your waste reduction strategy - and definitely not the first step. Refuse, reduce and reuse first…..then take your (much reduced) recycling bin to the kerb.
Sources and more reading: