Recycling is not new. In times when resources were precious and pre-industrial revolution, people often recycled, reused and repaired much more than now. The Japanese were recycling paper in the 11th century; medieval blacksmiths made armour from scrap metal. During the second world war, scrap metal was made into tanks and women’s nylons into parachutes.
Simply burying waste in landfill is not a sustainable long term and there are business benefits from recycling some materials.
Globally, the waste industry is worth £250 bn and certain materials are relatively easy to easy and profitable. Recycling aluminium, say, is straightforward, profitable and environmentally sound: making a can from recycled aluminium reduces its carbon footprint by up to 95%.
Glass and paper and other metals are relatively easy to separate and recycle, although the profit margins are lower.
Plastic recycling – the issues
On the plus side, plastic is a light, clean mouldable material that protects and preserves and protects products until they are used by the consumers.
Plastic packaging has actually done an incredible service for the world, because it has reduced the amount of glass, metal and paper that we were using reducing the carbon footprint of packaging. The problems come when we try to separate it, clean it and finding someone that can handle plastic waste responsibly.
You drink a Coca-Cola, throw the bottle into the recycling, put the bins out on collection day and forget about it. But it doesn’t disappear.
It starts with materials recovery facilities (MRFs) which sort waste into its constituent parts.
From there, the materials enter a network of brokers and traders. Some of that happens in the UK, but much of it – about half of all paper and cardboard, and two-thirds of plastics – will be loaded on to container ships to be sent to Europe or Asia for recycling.
half of all paper and cardboard, and two-thirds of plastics – will be loaded on to container ships to be sent to Europe or Asia for recycling.
Paper and cardboard goes to mills; glass is washed and re-used or smashed and melted, like metal and plastic. Food, and anything else, is burned or sent to landfill.
China – not going to take it anymore
From 1st January 2018, China, formerly the world’s largest market for recycled waste, closed its doors.
Under its National Sword policy, China prohibited 24 types of waste from entering the country, arguing that what was coming in was too contaminated.
The policy shift was partly attributed to the impact of a documentary, Plastic China, which went viral before censors erased it from China’s internet.
The film follows a family working in the country’s recycling industry, where humans pick through vast dunes of western waste, shredding and melting salvageable plastic into pellets that can be sold to manufacturers. It is filthy, polluting work – and badly paid. The remainder is often burned in the open air.
For recyclers, National Sword was a huge blow. The price of cardboard has probably halved in the last 12 months and the price of plastics has plummeted to the extent that it isn’t worth recycling.
Still, that waste has to go somewhere.
The UK, like most developed nations, produces more waste than it can process at home: 230m tonnes a year – about 1.1kg per person per day. (The US, the world’s most wasteful nation, produces 2kg per person per day.)
Countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam stepped in as a destination but the rubbish is simply left or burned in open landfills, illegal sites.
The present dumping ground of choice is Malaysia. In October last year, a Greenpeace Unearthed investigation found mountains of British and European waste in illegal dumps there: Tesco crisp packets, Flora tubs and recycling collection bags from three London councils.
As in China, the waste is often burned or abandoned, eventually finding its way into rivers and oceans. In May, the Malaysian government began turning back container ships, citing public health concerns. Thailand and India have announced bans on the import of foreign plastic waste.
What next for the UK’s plastic recycling?
In the UK, recycling rates have stagnated in recent years, while National Sword and funding cuts have led to more waste being burned in incinerators and energy-from-waste plants. (Incineration, while often criticised for being polluting and an inefficient source of energy, is now preferred to landfill, which emits methane and can leach toxic chemicals.)
While the UK is a successful recycling nation: 45.7% of all household waste is classed as recycled (although that number indicates only that it is sent for recycling, not where it ends up.) In the US, that figure is 25.8%. This still doesn’t solve the problem.
Pollution should be dealt with at source and loading it on container ships destined for Asia is not a sustainable solution.
The problems highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet II has drawn the public’s attention to the problems of doing this.
We need to follow the waste hierarchy principles of reduce, reuse, recycle and repair. There are zero waste refill shops opening where consumers can buy dry food, shampoo and other products by bringing their own reusable containers – weigh, fill and buy shops.
One great hope is chemical recycling: turning problem plastics into oil or gas through industrial processes. At Swindon based Recycling Technologies’ pilot plant in Swindon, plastic (Griffiths says it can process any type) is fed into a towering steel cracking chamber, where it is separated at extremely high temperatures into gas and an oil, plaxx, which can be used as a fuel or feedstock for new plastic.
Like all environmental problems, the problems will be solved by a combination of individual consumer action, technology and government policy changes.