Since forever it seems like the focus has been on recycling as the solution to our plastic pandemic. However, the scale of the environmental problem is so staggering that the answer isn’t so simple.
There are many critical challenges and limitations when it comes to implementing a pathway towards efficient and effective recycling.
The reality is, the UK is still recycling less than half of its waste and although the material has been demonised in the media; in truth, plastics aren’t inherently bad, it’s what we do with them that impacts the Earth. It would appear that we are looking at anything and everything, except ourselves.
For instance, the UK will need to recycle at least an extra 24 million tonnes of material over the period to 2035 if it’s to hit the Government target; this material would fill at least 2 million refuse vehicles. Without change, these recycling targets will be missed by over a decade.
Rather than reducing the amount of throwaway plastics created in the first place, we look to recycling as a resolution. However, even when plastics are recyclable and put in a recycling bin, 70% still ends up in landfill or incinerators causing huge emission problems, or ending up in the sea.*
As consumers, we have become accustomed to purchasing products straight from the palm of our hands. We can get whatever we want, whenever we want, delivered directly to us to accommodate our on-the-go lifestyles. However, it is this addiction to convenience and our demand for choice that’s creating the environmental challenges we see today.
We want more, but with less impact on the world around us, which is practically impossible. Our home shopping habits have increased the amount of waste being produced and consequently thrown away.
UK households and businesses used 11 million tonnes of packaging in 2017, according to government figures. Two-thirds of our plastic packaging waste is exported by an export industry which was worth more than £50 million last year.**
Even though household waste recycling overall saw a marginal gain between 2016 and 2017, recycling of packaging waste decreased. Overall packaging waste recycling declined by 1.2% – from 71.4% in 2016 to 70.2% in 2017.***
While there is no hard evidence to suggest that this decline can be linked to the growth in e-commerce packaging, combined with the lack of capacity for recycling in our homes, it is further notable that tonnes of paper and cardboard packaging recovered or recycled fell by 3.5% from 3.9 million tonnes in 2016 to 3.8 million tonnes in 2017.***
However, it’s not like our throwaway culture is to blame entirely. According to Greenpeace, only 9% of plastic that has been produced globally since 1950 has actually been recycled. This shows that our waste management infrastructure has completely failed.
Major problems in the plastic recycling industry are costing local councils in England up to £500,000 extra a year, as they struggle to deal with the continuing fallout from import bans imposed by countries who will no longer take the UK’s waste, like China.****
Only one thing is for certain, changing consumer habits and the UK’s recycling approach must be addressed and restructured now in order to see real change but with so many factors in play, where do we begin to tackle these challenges?
As Ellen Mcarthur stated “We have not been successful at recycling. After 40 years of trying, we have not been able to make it work. It needs a systemic change.”
With that being said, we can’t rely on recycling as the primary solution to our plastic problem. If anything, it is the last resort.
Even if authorities begin to radically reform recycling infrastructures now, this will take time and we need to act immediately.
The truth is, we cannot recycle ourselves out of our current plastic problem. In fact, the current recycling system for plastics is a huge contributor to the plastic pollution we now see globally. What’s worse is the focus on recycling targets has only pushed the material further into the waste management system.
It’s easy to forget that recycling isn’t selfless scheme adopted by Governments. It is an industry that’s worth billions globally. A fall in oil prices or a shift in environmental policy has the power to render recycling plastic much less profitable for the companies doing it, often making it not worth their while at all.
The obvious solution to our plastic problem is to produce and use less of it. Regulation is required to truly address the devastating impact of single-use and unavoidable, non-recyclable plastic.
We must put pressure on political leaders to enforce heavy taxes/make it impossible to profit from manufacturing single-use plastic.
It is our duty to demand all departments of Government prioritise moving the UK towards a circular economy.
A circular economy is an alternative to a traditional linear economy (make, use, dispose). This means we keep resources in use for as long as possible, extract the maximum value from them, then recover and regenerate products and materials at the end of each service life.
As well as creating new opportunities for growth, a more circular economy will reduce waste and drive greater resource productivity. It will also deliver a more competitive UK economy and help reduce the environmental impacts of our production and consumption in both the UK and abroad.
According to ‘The Tipping Point’ report by DS Smith, to implement this move, first The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) should carry out an economic analysis of the benefits and costs of adopting a circular model over the next 25 years. We can then use this analysis to set more circular strategies for all UK government departments.
Waste and recycling infrastructures in England have been severely under-funded. As a result, local authorities turned to the cheapest waste treatment rather than improving the quality of collected dry recyclables. Therefore, we must put collective pressure on the government to invest in improved infrastructures in the UK.
We should look to successful systems, like Wales and follow suit. The latest annual figures showed that Wales’ municipal recycling rate is now 63%, against a national target of 58%. Wales is also first in the UK, second in Europe and third in the world for household recycling.
So far, the country has set a 70% recycling rate for 2025, aiming to be a ‘zero-waste nation’ by 2050. Wales also boasts a highly progressive policy and funding approach. This includes guidance on separate collections and fines for local authorities who fail to reach targets.
Of course, the responsibility doesn’t solely fall on the Government or local authorities; consumers must also recognise the part they play.
If Local Authorities educate residents about what can be recycled and provide consistent collection, individuals will feel confident in the system and informed.
Only 18% of adults surveyed say they’re well informed about what can be recycled.
When asked which schemes ‘would be most likely’ to encourage members of the public to recycle more, over a third (34%) cited clearer labelling on products and packaging was needed.
Big brands and business must implement a communications strategy to enable consumers to recycle better.
All packaging and collection infrastructure should have standardised recycling labels much more visible on the pack and provide sufficient information for the consumer about what materials can be recycled and where.
There should be a greater focus on the reusability of materials. We need to change our consumer mindsets and love for convenience and learn to appreciate the valuable resources we come into contact with every day.
Carrier bags can be reused in shops and packaging like foil and egg cartons can be donated for arts and craft projects in schools.
You can also refill and reuse your cleaning products and save Tupperware from takeaways to use as lunchboxes for work or even for storing leftovers in the fridge.
In the UK we use 7 million disposable coffee cups every day – that’s 2.5 billion every year*****. Imagine the difference it would make to the planet, if we all purchased a £2.50 reusable cup and remembered to take it out with us?
For more tips on how to reuse your plastic visit here.
Where reusables aren’t an option, consumers should consider choosing materials that have a clear waste stream such as recycled card, paper, aluminium and glass.
Refuse to receive materials with unnecessary packaging. Money talks and you can use it to tell companies what you want and do not want.
Think about what you use and buy. Could you use less? Making small changes like having shorter showers and reducing the amount of food you buy will make a big difference.
If the above options won’t work and there is no alternative, only then opt for recycling. You can recycle food wastes into composted soil or as food for a local farm. You can even recycle all fabric – stained or ripped clothing and even old electronics.
We all know packaging isn’t going anywhere, in particular plastic. The harsh reality is that we rely on it and without it, we would see more food waste – a vastly overlooked driver of climate change.
However, we can be a lot smarter about the changes we make moving forward; as individuals and as a leading packaging supplier.
What we can do right now (at least when it comes to plastic packaging) is ensure that we always design with the end in mind. We can work to optimise packaging and encourage clients to choose more lightweight materials with reduced environmental impact.
We can look at whether we really need to use plastic for single use, throwaway formats. Furthermore, rather than contaminating current waste streams, we can develop materials that will be accepted, like our Ready 2 Recycle range.
We believe by sharing knowledge we can empower consumers. It’s our responsibility to educate others by sharing sustainable solutions and promoting good practice in regards to packaging and information about reducing, recycling and reusing.
Whilst in theory recycling seems to be a fantastic solution for dealing with some of the plastics we need, as long as there’s a demand for plastic, plastic providers will continue to produce it.
Instead we must demand regulation to reduce the volume of single-use plastics and shift away from our throwaway culture. We need to value the products we have and view them as resources, refilling and reusing over recycling where we can.
While we do not want to discourage anyone from recycling, we do believe pointing the finger at plastic, when we do not have the facilities in place to deal with it in the first place, is counterproductive.
Unfortunately, the human race is responsible for the problem and now we must unite to end it.