In 2018 the consciousness of Western nations received a collective shock when it was revealed how much ‘recycling’ is never actually recycled. The year before, the figure was 45.7% in the UK and around 35% in the US. However, this figure varies depending on the material – paper is frequently recycled, as are valuable materials such as metals and glass, but only around 9% of plastic. Given the average person in the UK goes through about 99kg of plastic annually, it isn’t difficult to see why the world now faces a literal trash heap staring it in the face.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. But, like many people, at the time I would rinse my plastic milk cartons, flatten my cardboard boxes, toss them into the recycling bin and call it a day. I rarely, if ever, wondered about the details of recycling, instead trusting in the system to get the job done. But the system was flawed. Around 2/3 of the UK’s waste was being packed up and shipped to developing countries for sorting, processing, and recycling, overwhelming their systems. And this cycle may have mobius-looped its way on through eternity – if not for first China, then others, issuing bans on ‘contaminated’ waste from other countries.
The sudden refusal of recyclables by these countries crashed the worldwide waste chain. Companies were suddenly scrambling to pay thousands of pounds to remove shipments of waste from hostile shores. The sudden shift gained the attention of the press, which reported extensively on the issue. Yet since 2018, despite a massive swell of interest in climate change and the environment, recycling has remained on the periphery of many people’s awareness, with the focus instead being on carbon emissions. This is a mistake. The reuse of materials that are otherwise left to sit and only potentially decompose in landfill has a massive role to play in the wider world of sustainability.
The benefits of recycling are obvious; instead of using brand-new materials, you break down existing ones and reform them into a new product. This makes use of materials that would otherwise go to waste, as well as avoiding the need to extract finite resources. One of the most-flaunted innovations in recent years has been the recycling of PET water bottles into fleeces, a now fairly common product companies are all too ready to promote. This example both highlights the benefits of recycling (use of plastic that would otherwise end up in landfill) and one of its major flaws; that recycled materials lose much of their quality in the process. It is pretty much impossible to form the exact same product of the same standard through current recycling processes. This can be seen as a barrier to recycling as the quality degrades each time the material is recycled; however, it does ensure that the material can still be used for as long as possible.
Interestingly, despite their prevalence in our everyday lives, plastics are the least recycled of all materials. This is partially due to the complexity of the processes involved. When plastics are recycled, they are first sorted into their different types (PET, LDPE, HDPE to name a few). However, the system by which these different plastics are identified can be confusing for the average consumer. Have you ever looked at a piece of plastic and seen the mobius loop with the small number inside? These form the Resin Identification Coding System, first introduced in 1988, which tell you the type of plastic you’re holding. The difficulty comes with the recyclability of each type of plastic, as only some are recycled depending on the council or the company they’ve hired. Equally, many supermarkets and other companies use a secondary system indicating which parts of their packaging can be recycled, but again, this can change depending on location and the services you use. The best way to ensure you only put recyclable goods in the recycling bin is to check what types of plastic your council collects and familiarise yourself with the resin codes to make sure you aren’t contaminating your bins with unrecyclable waste.
In the last decade, many councils have ended the use of segregated recycling bins and begun instead using a system of ‘mixed recycling’, where common recyclable goods such as paper, plastic and glass are all placed in the same bin and later sorted at specialised facilities. Such changes encourage recycling by making it more convenient for the consumer. However, by mixing the different items to be recycled, the process of sorting becomes much more difficult, thus increasing chances of contamination. The biggest reason given by China and other countries in 2018 for ending waste imports was that the levels of contamination were too high for the goods to be sorted effectively. Since the 2018 ban, China has imposed strict laws on the quality of recyclable waste it accepts, limiting imports to 0.05% contamination. As a result, the responsibility falls to the consumer and recycling companies to ensure all recyclable goods have been cleaned and sorted as much as possible to limit contamination.
However, we cannot look only to recycling to solve our waste problem. Of the 6 R’s of sustainability, (Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, and Recycle) only recycling allows for the complete destruction of a product in order to create a new one. All the others focus on limiting consumption or extending a product’s lifetime. These actions have a much lower impact on the environment than the energy inputs required for materials to be recycled. Thus, part of the solution to the world’s waste problem lies in fundamental changes to how we as consumers buy, use, and dispose of products. The ‘circular economy’ model put forward in recent years imagines a sealed system in which existing materials are used for the whole of their useful lifetime and then regenerated, preventing anything new from entering the loop. Whilst worldwide we are far from this, some companies have begun using this
model to influence their design thinking. As consumers, we can also take steps to increase the useful lifetime of products, for instance, by giving electronics or toys to someone else who can use them, repairing clothing so it can be worn again, or simply refusing to buy groceries packaged in plastic – there are many ways in which the need for recycling can simply be avoided in the first place.
There is no doubt that recycling is a complex issue, with much that can be done to improve the systems currently in place. However, as the only method currently allowing for the recovery of finite resources from discarded products, recycling has a large part to play in building a long-lasting, sustainable future.
Originally published in the Penguin 'IGNITE' (Summer 2021)