Recycling – is it worth it?
Helen Bird, recycling expert at WRAP, answers your frequently asked questions.
‘Single-use’ was coined 2018’s word of the year – and it’s not hard to see why after we collectively became aware of the devastating impact single-use plastic can have watching the BBC’s Blue Planet II and Drowning in Plastic.
Everybody seems to be discussing the plastic crisis - what the problem is, whose fault it is, what the right thing to do is… the list goes on. There has also been a lot in the media which can cause confusion and apprehension about what you should be doing at home to be as environmentally friendly as possible - fundamentally, for perhaps the first time it’s made us question whether recycling is really worth it after all.
And yet we’re recycling more than ever – twice as much as we did 15 years ago, in fact! So what’s the solution? What can we do about the scourge of plastics – is recycling really the answer?
The most important thing I should stress at this point is that recycling is always the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of your rubbish. By putting something in your general rubbish bin, it’s guaranteed to end up in landfill, or be used for energy from waste; but recycling gives that material the best chance of staying in use and out of the wider environment.
But at WRAP (Recycle Now’s parent organisation) we’re also working ‘behind the scenes’ with the industry and governments to make the recycling system better and simpler. Here’s how:-
What’s being done about the plastics crisis?
This year WRAP launched a world-first initiative, The UK Plastics Pact. The Pact works across the whole industry with Government, supermarkets, businesses, governments, industry and NGOs – from design to disposal – aiming to make plastic pollution a thing of the past. Its aims are to not just increase the recycling of plastics and improve the recycling system, but also to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging altogether, and increase the amount of recycled material in plastic packaging. A LOT is happening.
88% of us are reporting to have changed how we use plastics after watching Blue Planet II. The supermarkets are seeing the effects of this – Waitrose, for example, have recently reported sales of loose pears to have increased 30 times the rate of bagged, and they expect this trend to continue. But we also need to consider how we can make packaging more sustainable when it does need to be used – and in many cases, it does need to be used to prevent food waste, which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases and carbon emissions.
One of the targets of The UK Plastics Pact is for all plastic packaging sold by Pact members to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Brand and retailer members of the Pact (which between them account for more than 80% of all the packaging we buy daily) are making changes to their packaging, for example by removing or reducing the amount of plastic used, switching to more recyclable plastics and providing re-usable alternatives. Some examples can be found on the WRAP website.
What about compostable plastics – are they the answer?
We are considering opportunities for compostable plastic packaging – while compostable sounds like it will have a minimal impact on the environment, it has to be disposed in a particular way in order for them to be beneficial and can cause more issues if not dealt with correctly. Our work in this area will help ensure the most sustainable type of plastic is picked for the scenario in which it’s used.
What is Government doing?
The Government has already made some progressive steps to prevent plastic pollution and improve recycling – such as introducing the single use plastic carrier bag charge.
In the Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced a new tax on plastic packaging which doesn’t have a minimum of 30% recycled content (subject to consultation). This will make it more costly for businesses producing plastic to make it from new, non-recycled plastic which is less environmentally friendly.
The Government also published a landmark Resources and Waste Strategy in December. Part of this addresses Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) – where businesses that produce a material in turn pay a percentage its recycling costs. This is based on the principle of ‘Polluter Pays’, ensuring that the system works transparently and as best it can, funded by those that produce.
The Strategy is also pushing for more consistency in what’s collected for recycling at kerbside across the country – making it simpler for everyone to understand what should and shouldn’t go in the recycling bin. This is something WRAP has been championing for a while, as it makes recycling easier for everybody and it will ensure more plastic packaging is recycled.
The Government is also outlining plans to make food waste recycling collections available across the country. Reducing the amount of food we waste is important, but when food does need to be thrown away, recycling is the best option.
What’s being done about our recycling going overseas?
Recycle Now recently blogged about the recycling import restrictions in China, and what we can all do at home to help the situation.
WRAP believes we should be recycling more of our plastic waste in the UK; but also to see a better system for our recycling if it does have to be sent abroad. Under The UK Plastics Pact, there is a target to significantly increase recycled content in plastic packaging. This will help drive the UK market for recycling and therefore reducing the amount of material that is exported.
In the Resources and Waste Strategy Government recognises that there are failings in the current system and have pledged to consult on changes, including better controls on materials that are exported for recycling.
The UK is also a member of the Basal Convention, an international treaty originally designed to prevent developed countries sending developing countries hazardous waste. Amendments are proposed that could see mixed plastic packaging waste added to this.
What are local authorities doing?
The number of local authorities that are collecting a wider range of plastics (bottles and pots, tubs and trays) has increased to 79% - that’s up from 18% 10 years ago. Recycling in the UK is on the right path – and I have had many positive individual conversations with the UK recyclers about the future of the UK recycling industry.
At WRAP we have (and continue to) develop and share best practice guidance with local authorities and industry to make recycling easier for everyone.
Remember the Recycling Locator is always there too if you’re not sure what to recycle in your area.
What can we do at home to help?
Remember that taking a tiny amount of time to recycle gives plastic the best chance to be transformed into a new item and out of our environment. Here are my top tips:
- Leave lids on plastic bottles – squash the bottle first before replacing the lid
- Recycle from the bathroom – remember shampoo and shower gel bottles can be recycled too!
- Recycle plastic film at supermarkets – they often have collection points for plastic bags
- Give items with food residue a quick rinse
- If in doubt, check before you chuck – visit our Recycling Locator to find out what you can recycle where you live
So – is recycling worth it?
I feel passionately about the improving the plastics system and improving the recycling system, and I know that many of you reading this will feel that too. Recycling really does make a difference. We’ve come a long way, and there’s still work to be done – but the recycling system is improving for the better.
Let’s keep up the good work – it is worth it.