• Hamish Sherlock

Where our Recycling Really Goes

To tie in with my Fifty Shades Greener colleague Giulia Manuelli’s food waste blog series and in recognition of the recent Global Recycling Day, I wanted to look a little closer at the recycling waste we throw away and where it ends up.

Nothing we throw away actually goes away, once rubbish leaves our hands it has a life of its own and it’s more than likely to outlive us all in one form or another, especially the broad range of materials we collate under the recyclable umbrella, and it is here that I want to draw focus.

Waste is a £250bn global enterprise, and although there are concerted efforts from many UK industry players to sort our waste into its constituent parts and extract value where they can through Material Recovery Facilities (MRF’s), about half of all the paper and cardboard and two thirds of plastics we get rid of is eventually loaded onto container ships to be sorted at various international sites via third party suppliers in Europe and more predominantly in Asia.

When China shut its ports to our waste in 2018 under their National Sword policy, this export chain was turned on its head. Under immense national pressure because of the poor (well, awful really) working conditions of the waste factory workers and the revelation that they were in fact burning most of what they received with obvious catastrophic results in local pollution, the Chinese government announced it intended to stop the importation of 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of the year, including polyethylene terephthalate (Pet) drinks bottles, other plastic bottles and containers and all mixed paper, in a campaign against yang laji or “foreign garbage”.

British companies alone had shipped more than 2.7m tonnes of plastic waste to China between 2012 and 2018, two thirds of the UK’s total plastic waste exports in that period.

The consequences of this ban have been far reaching. For recyclers the price they can get for materials, specifically plastics and cardboard have plummeted to the point of making it almost financially unviable to export, but they have no other option. The crux of the problem is that we produce recycling volumes well over the amount we can process, so alternative vendors have to be sourced, and these are found predominantly in Asia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand – all nations with the world’s highest rates of waste mismanagement. Rubbish, our rubbish, is mostly burned in open landfills or left as a pollutant in illegal sites. Mountains of our waste now lies in these beautiful countries, half burned, polluting the rivers, oceans and wildlife.

From the 1st January 2021 the EU banned shipments of unsorted plastic waste from its member states to non-OECD countries in a huge effort to stop wealthy nations dumping contaminated plastic waste on poorer ones… but, we’re not in the EU. No doubt the governments manifesto commitment to banning this practice, and the promise of no regression of environmental standards post-Brexit, will both surely be upheld though? Surely? No, our post Brexit regulations are far less stringent than that of the EU, and exporting will be allowed to continue. Word from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is that the government has pledged to ban the export of all plastic waste to non-OECD countries, and so the department has commissioned research to better understand existing UK plastic waste recycling capacity and would consult in due course on how to deliver its manifesto commitments. No timetable has been given for this action. Say what you like about Michael Gove, I may well agree with you, but it can’t be denied that DEFRA has lost a powerful and motivated captain in him. Since he moved to Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, there has been a very noticeable drop in inspiration and progress from his former department.

In all this mess, I for one see hope however. It is really thanks to the Chinese National Sword programme that this issue has come to light. Like many of us I lived for years under the delusion that everything I put into recycling was being reliably and responsibly reconstituted. It wasn’t until watching a 2019 BBC documentary showing that our councils and waste companies were in fact just exporting the problem halfway around the world, that the reality of the situation became apparent. You can’t fix a problem you can’t see, but this issue is now clear to see, the smouldering mountains of our waste strewn across Asia stand as monument to our ignorance, and our marker for change.

So, the big question, what can we do to correct the situation while we wait for the government to get its house in order? The first and most important message must be to keep recycling, just because it’s not being dealt with properly, waste segregation is still vitally important. Methane emissions from UK landfill have dropped by 70% since 2001, and this is down to improved landfill containment and better waste segregation.

With the multiple various symbols on potentially recyclable items being about as clear as the governments aforementioned waste shipping policy and with no unilateral council recycling procedures, it can be hard to know what to recycle, where, when and how. We must keep asking when it's right to use individual product and everyday items, and when they can be avoided. Keep-cups, reusable water bottles, silicone lids and shopping bags ‘for life’ are all there for us to use and all make a difference in our day to day lives.

Over one-third of household plastic waste comes from supermarket shopping. We have all seen the outrage over individually wrapped coconuts and the rest, and most supermarkets are committing to "better recycling", signing up to the UK Plastics Pact, pledging all their packaging will be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. However we have to be wary, recycling of plastics could easily become a smokescreen for simply another version of business as usual, creating false solutions whilst ignoring the real problem. We must focus on reducing, not just recycling. Use less, don’t recycle more.

For hospitality businesses the Fifty Shades Greener online Waste module is a great way to assess your waste production, and how you can reduce your recycling, landfill and food waste to make your business more environmentally sustainable and bring down your annual waste bills. It’s an excellent tool for businesses getting ready to re-open and build back stronger and greener, either on its own or as part of our larger Green Business Online Programme. Take a look or get in touch if you would like to discuss further.

Hamish Sherlock

Fifty Shades Greener South

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