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Doing More with Less: Why We Can’t Just Recycle Our Way Out of Crisis

It’s a common sight. Plastic recycling bins primed in blue, green, brown, and sometimes yellow; lining the UK’s streets like brightly-dressed children waiting for the school bus. 

These kaleidoscopic containers serve as refuge for everything from plastic bottles to yoghurt pots, before spilling into the back of an industrial-sized truck. Styrofoam cups are crushed; shampoo bottles clatter; old carrier bags flutter atop like turtle doves. And then the truck departs.

Just like that, your recycling duties are complete. You feel content. You’ve done your part to save the planet, or so you tell yourself.

But contrary to popular belief, recycling is by no means a silver bullet built to solve our most pressing environmental concerns. Indeed, despite our best efforts, more than 90 per cent of all plastic waste ever created has never been recycled.

The reason? Plastic is not designed to be recycled

Where glass and metal can be recycled infinitely, plastic can only manage a handful of reuses before it is rendered useless and sent to landfill. From there it seeps into our oceans, assembles on beaches, and contaminates our drinking water. The remaining plastic spends centuries rotting away.

It’s a perturbing picture – and one which will leave us with 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills by 2050 if we don’t make drastic changes today. And we can. We all just need to start by doing more with less.

Cutting down on convenience

Imagine you’re heading out for lunch. Perhaps you pick up a panini, cradled in a polystyrene packet. For afters, there’s a punnet of pre-sliced mango to satisfy your sweet tooth, and a bottle of spring water to wash it down.

As your receipt is spat out, you dump your purchases in a plastic carrier bag and head back to the office. Less than 15 minutes later, your discarded packs and wraps sit at the bottom of your work’s bin (preferably a recycling bin, if you can find one).

Here’s the crux of the matter. That plastic-wrapped panini can’t be recycled (at least by 99 per cent of councils), the punnet – if left with its plastic window intact – will similarly be rejected, and the bottle of water, due to the different polymers used in its manufacturing, will likely never make it to processing. And don’t think you can recycle that receipt, either – it’s covered in BPA, meaning it joins the 3.7 million tonnes of plastic waste we throw away every day.

Recycling plastic is like wearing a raincoat in a hurricane

While this is only a snapshot of a single shop, the buying and ‘recycling’ of single-use items is endemic. In fact, it’s estimated that as much as two-thirds of the nation’s kitchen cupboards are made up of unrecyclables; a figure which has increased four-fold since 2013. This is equivalent to sending 355,855 tonnes of plastic packaging to landfill.

If we are going to make any mark on the trillions of single-use plastics we consume every year, recycling simply is not enough. Just like placing a plaster on a gunshot wound, it’s a superficial means to a more damaging end.

If we are going to get to the core of the plastic problem, we need to go back to basics – and this means cutting consumption at its core.

Mastering waste management

Sit down with the government’s official recycling statistics and you’d be forgiven for believing that, as a nation, we’ve made great strides towards an eco-friendlier future.

After all, UK households currently recycle 45.7 per cent of the 170m tonnes of waste produced each year – a huge leap from the meagre 12 per cent recorded in 2001. And yet, while this now sets the UK in line to reach the EU’s recycling targets by 2020, recycling rates are slowly stagnating as British plants struggle to manage the deluge of waste sent their way.

There are gaping holes in our current recycling infrastructure

One of the reasons is that many plastics are made using unrecyclable materials (such as polystyrene), while others simply can’t be sorted when they do reach the recycling plant. One such ‘unsortable’ plastic is low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is often found in carrier bags.

Many materials are also not processed simply because council facilities don’t have the appropriate equipment to deal with them. For instance, some scanners can’t identify black plastic when placed on black conveyor belts, while some facilities can’t split the paper and plastic components from disposable coffee cups.

As a result, around 338,000 tonnes of waste is rejected from recycling plants, and approximately two-thirds of plastic waste is now sent directly to landfill sites or burned in incinerators. Any remaining waste then heads overseas to another country for ‘reprocessing’. Although this, too, typically ends up in landfill.

Reframing recycling

Despite our best intentions, we are all, quite frankly, failing our planet.

If we are to curb the effects of climate change, there is no question about it: everyone from manufacturers to councils to homeowners need to immediately reframe their approach to recycling.

Thankfully, many positive measures are already being implemented across the globe.

Governmental measures

The war on plastic bags began in 2014 in the UK. Following reports that more than 7.6 billion plastic bags were being used every year, the UK government imposed a 5p plastic bag charge to try and reverse the damage caused to wildlife and water systems. This small charge has alerted customers to excessive plastic bag consumption and has reduced overall waste by 86 per cent.

Companies have also been fine-tuning their personal recycling measures. Pret, for instance, now offers a 50p discount to customers who bring in a reusable cup. This incentive has helped to set it on track to save four million disposable cups a year.

Others are pledging for a greener future. McDonald’s is one example of such a company who has pledged to only use sustainable packaging from 2025 onwards. They have also promised to ban all unrecyclable Styrofoam products in their facilities by the year’s end.

There are also government-wide plans to ban unrecyclable plastics from October 2019 onwards, such as plastic straws, cotton buds and stirrers. Likewise, companies will soon be taxed on any plastic packaging which is made from less than 30 per cent recycled plastic.

Relinquishing waste

For there to be any systematic change, we need to simultaneously reduce our reliance on convenience products and rediscover the value in our waste.

Similarly, using sustainable materials in place of single-use plastics is a way to solve over-consumption. And, for this, we turn to biomaterials.

There are a whole host of companies who have already made great strides in creating a more sustainable and ethically-conscious world. Tetra Pak, for instance, use biomaterials to create milk bottles, while Bambaw’s drinking straws provide an eco-friendly alternative to single-use products (many of which take 500 years to decompose). Elsewhere, Two Farmers produce compostable crisp packets which take less than 26 weeks to biodegrade.

Along with seeking sustainable alternatives, there are ways we can all make reuse a part of our everyday. Take the ‘reverse vending’ machine method, for instance. This machine takes used plastics, namely bottles, and returns a deposit or refund to the user. From there they are cleaned and rebottled; for non-refillable bottles, containers are recycled in specialist units, ready for rebottling. Sweden has been a huge proponent of the ‘reverse vending’ method since its inception in 1984.

On a personal level, there are plenty of small ways to introduce reuse into your day-to-day. For instance, you could save on plastic cutlery by choosing to eat and drink-in, while reusables, such as Bags for Life and Keep Cups, can help to cut down on consumption when you’re on-the-go.

On the occasions where reuse isn’t possible, of course, the next best thing is to recycle. While it is not without the issues highlighted in this article, recycling remains a major player in the fight against waste – the only difference is, now, it has a place on the subs bench.

To learn more about what we can do to reduce plastic waste, visit the Crystal’s Reduce, Reuse. Recycle exhibition.

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