Recycling plastic: a false solution?

Every time I sort the different kinds of plastic that, despite our best efforts, we still purchase, I find myself wondering what will happen to them. I have, perhaps, become conditioned into believing that this is the least bad option, which makes it possible to convince myself that this is all OK. Roger McGough’s poetic observation that “There are fascists pretending to be humanitarians, like cannibals on a health-kick eating only vegetarians” springs to mind.

Have I been duped into thinking recycling plastic is an acceptable solution?

A false solution?

The website DeSmog would argue that I have. Writing on 15 February 2024, the author argues (referring to a report by the Center for Climate Integrity) that “the plastics industry has misled the public for decades about the viability of recycling plastic, promoting reuse despite the fact that mechanical recycling was not feasible – perpetuating the plastic waste crisis the world faces today.” Plastics manufacturers and industry groups including some of the largest oil and gas companies in the world,” the article continues, “have spent more than 50 years funding and pushing plastics recycling in order to stave off regulatory action – all while knowing that only a small fraction of plastic waste could ever be recycled.”

It goes on to quote an industry group’s statement in 1986 as admitting that “recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution, as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of.” DeSmog goes on to claim that advanced recycling – a process that claims to be able to “break plastics down to their chemical components” – is deeply flawed and merely the industry’s “most recent false solution.” A February 2024 article in The Guardian repeats this point.

These are serious claims and I – like most people – have no immediate way of judging how fair they are. Plastic is certainly amazingly useful and most of us, looking round any room in our house, would see plenty of examples of it.

One of the claims in favour of these complex materials is in food production. But a quick internet search produces, yet again, a divergence of views.

Plastic Europe – whose interest should be clear from its name – claimed in 2019 thatPlastic packaging plays an important role in increasing the shelf life of food and protecting it from external factors such as damage during transport and handling, deterioration caused by exposure to oxygen, spoilage by microbes and the absorption of malodours.” On the other hand, The Guardian reported in 2022 that an 18-month study by the sustainability charity Wrap suggested that plastic packaging does not make food last longer. The article then goes on to make an important, though different point, that “packaging often forces people to buy more than they need, increasing the problem of wasted food.”

Loose fruit and veg is certainly the norm in French supermarkets although customers are then invited to put them into plastic bags, which only moves the problem on. In supermarkets everywhere we are now slaves to the barcode and the self-checkout. A purchase which needs to be selected, bagged, weighed and have a sticker attached takes time. Better to grab a three-pack of peppers even though tonight’s recipe only calls for one. Time, that’s the enemy – even though food is vital for my survival, the smallest delay in my acquiring it is intolerable. 

All these arguments – landfill v recycling v incineration and plastic wrapping v none – are very hard for most people to understand. I certainly can’t grasp all the issues. The conventional wisdom has always been that recycling is good. It doesn’t seem that simple, though. Is it a pragmatic approach given the imperfect world we’ve created or an elaborate form of greenwashing, perpetuated over decades on a vast scale?

Plastic policies

I thought I’d take a look at what West Berkshire Council does with our plastic. Two pages on their website seemed relevant. The first told me that “Plastic bottles are sorted into the two types of plastic (PET and HDPE). The bottles are sent to a reprocessor in Dagenham to be recycled into new products. PET can be made into fleece garments, insulating linings, sleeping bag stuffing and even loft insulation. HDPE can be used to make things like drainage pipes and garden furniture.” That seems reasonable at first glance, although the “cans” in the last two sentences fell short of saying that this was what actually happens.

The second, which was concerned with plastic pots, tubs and trays, had some even more equivocal statements. It turns out that these will be taken to Veolia’s Plastics Recovery Facility in Rainham: “from there, some plastics will be sent on to Veolia’s Dagenham, East London facility to make pellets which would then be used to manufacture items like new milk bottles.” Note the “some” and the “would”. What happens to the rest?

Another concern is that the stuff we don’t need is shipped to wherever and left for them to deal with. According to Statistica, the UK exported nearly half a million metric tons of plastic waste in 2022, though this was down from 0.86 million in 2011. WBC’s website addresses the question of whether these plastic items stay in the UK for recycling directly – well, sort of. Veoilia uses UK facilities “where they are available” and that everything else ends up in Europe (howsoever defined) with a “stringent duty of care audit process.” Plastic items that can’t be recycled – though the article doesn’t suggest what percentage of the total this might be – are “sent to an energy from waste facility in the UK.” Where what happens to them?

WBC explains that it was only in 2021 that “a suitably robust market for recycling plastic pots and tubs within the UK” existed. Previously, the risk would have been that materials were “exported to countries which may not have suitable facilities or regulatory standards to avoid some materials leaking into the natural environment and oceans.” This also seems reasonable, again accepting the imperfection of where we find ourselves, but I suspect that the first factor about the market probably tested higher than the second.

Finally, the WBC document considers whether all this is worth it. “The collection and recycling of more plastic types, where the market exists, is expected to be beneficial for the environment,” the final paragraph explains. Only “expected”? It will also “help the Council to achieve savings in carbon emissions compared to sending the materials to landfill or incineration facilities.” I don’t know enough about all the different destinations and consequences of the plastic waste to know if this is likely to be true or not.

“Recycling of these materials,” the final sentence reads, “will also make a small contribution to the recycling performance achieved by the Council.” In these league-table-driven times, this gets full marks for honesty though I’m not sure how high the idea will test with most residents.

I did some searches on the Vale of White Horse’s plastic recycling but could find only exhortations about putting things in the right bin rather than any statements about what happened to it. This was, however, the fourth best council in the country at recycling in 2021-22 and (a different source) the third best in 2022-23 although that still leaves open the question as to what happens to it.

Wiltshire Council has this article, helpfully titled “What happens to recycling”. This includes the assertion that of all the waste the council collects, 97% is dealt with in the UK and 2% in the EU. According to Let’s Recycle, Wiltshire only recycles 40% of its waste, however, compared to the Vale’s bronze-medal 61 %. West Berkshire deals with nearly 50%. The total range, by this source, is from 61.6% (South Oxfordshire) to 17.7% (Tower Hamlets). It’s perhap[s hard to think of two areas of the country which have less in common with each other, which may explain the disparity.

None of these councils have anything much to say about soft plastics, apart from the advice to take them to supermarkets. One of these, Tesco, would seem to be experiencing problems with its recycling arrangements in Poland according to this article from Resource.co.

Options

Dr Pat Watson of the East Garston Eco Group compiled this summary of what can be dealt with, and where, and what can’t. The number of different materials it describes – and, indeed, the fact that it needed to be written at all – shows how complex the situation is that we’re trying to deal with. Indeed, anyone who’s studied the issue in any detail might conclude that given the number of different recycling options, lack of transparency and the physical problems inherent in the actual processing (it uses a lot of energy and releases toxins and micro-plastics), the only logical course of action is to stop using plastic altogether. That’s easier said than done, of course.

This would be made easier if the most egregious single-use plastics were banned (though the problem would then be to find suitable replacements). The UN is currently trying to get a Global Plastics treaty agreed which Greenpeace claims “has huge potential to set us on the path to a plastic-free future.” Late last year, however, a report from Chatham House flagged up the familiar issue of international non-cooperation: “Complications arising from political divergences regarding the instrument’s scope and ambition, coupled with intricate technical details, hindered the progress of government delegates in advancing their work. The timeframe for concluding negotiations on the legally binding global agreement by the end of 2024 is growing increasingly constrained due to these challenges.”

I’m not sure I can do without plastic any more than I can do without oxygen, football or red wine. It’s certainly all around us and few days pass when I’m not unwrapping something from its convenient, air- and water-tight long-carbon-chain packaging. Plastic may or may not be the enemy in combatting climate change – which is the over-riding issue – but there’s the suspicion that the whole recycling obsession might have been a bit of a sleight of hand. The UN claims that we produce about 400m tonnes of plastic waste each year and I’m still far from clear where it all ends up.

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