Does Plastic Recycling work?
We're here to spread some awareness about why recycling isn't the answer to the world's plastic pollution and climate crisis.
Did you know:
- Only 9% of total plastic waste ever produced has been recycled? That is a pretty low number.
The very early recycling campaign was sponsored by the beverage industry, so they can keep producing and selling more plastic bottles, while shifting the onus to the consumer.. you!
Did you think recycling is a way to reduce carbon emissions? Wrong! The recycling process is not emission-free and often pollutes water with hazardous substances.
Consumers often wish-cycle i.e. throw a non-recyclable item in the recycling bin hoping it will get recycled. But it doesn't magically become recyclable. It ends up polluting the recycling stream and entire loads of recycling then end up getting incinerated, further polluting the planet as the plastic (read petroleum) burns.
Apparently in the UK, 46 percent of all household waste is classed as recycled - which really just means it's sent for recycling, not that it actually gets recycled.
Plastic doesn't maintain it's characteristics well when recycled, so pretty much most of it is down-cycled until finally, it reaches its end-of-life.
The carbon-reduction benefits are also less clear. You ship it around, then you have to wash it, then you have to chop it up, then you have to re-melt it, so the collection and recycling itself have their own environmental impact.
At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, and makeup 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments.
The UK alone sent over 64,786 tonnes of plastic waste to developing nations in the first seven months of 2020. That's more than 300 tonnes a day. Thanks to a loophole in the legislation, the UK can continue to export its waste abroad. We know most of it is contaminated and doesn't get recycled!
Waste dumps in these receiving countries are often near water streams, from where plastic makes its way into the ocean
The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic is being dumped into the oceans every minute.
Did you know pretty much 95% of all plastic in circulation is made from petrochemicals, and the main ingredient is petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Oil companies, along with their single-use plastic producing beverage producer friends, are some of the biggest proponents of recycling.
Whilst recycling is not a complete waste of time, let's make sure we are doing it correctly .
One obstacle to getting better recycling outcomes is the lack of education around the topic. Most people overstate the capacities of local recycling facilities and contaminate waste with non-recyclable materials that damage the recycling stream, often in a hope that they might still get recycled. This phenomenon is called "wish cycling".
Here's how you can contribute:
Learn what plastic recycling symbols stand for
The labels have been developed to make recycling easier for us, but from experience, they are as non-uniform and confusing as ever. To find out what all these mean, check out our blog post explaining recycling labels in detail.
Check your local council's recycling information
At the moment, the UK councils are not uniform in which materials they accept for household recycling. Councils also don’t typically accept soft and bendy plastics (think vegetable packets) or things like crisp packets. Some areas have specific drop off locations which you can find on google. Typically you can drop these off with plastic shopping bags, which are also not commonly accepted for recycling.
Wash out your waste before recycling it
Food residue is considered as contamination and your waste will be sent to the landfill because it cannot be properly processed. Make sure you wash and dry all of your recycling waste before sending it to the facilities. The same goes for removing labels and lids when sorting your waste. Yes, we know, it's not that easy.
Learn which everyday materials can be recycled
Did you know that clean tin foil can be recycled? It's made from aluminium which is the most recycled material in the world and if you wash it and scrunch it into a ball it is very likely it will be recycled. Just make sure there are no food deposits on it.
What can you do about old clothes that cannot be donated?
Thanks to fast fashion, and the trend of pretty much single-use clothing, the garment industry has become one of the top contributors of waste to the landfills and oceans in the UK. With over 60% of the clothing being some sort of petroleum-based plastic (think acrylic, nylon, rayon, polyester). In the UK, more than 350,000 tonnes of clothing waste ends up in the landfill every year.
While clothing recycling is a growing trend, sometimes in a very public display (looking at you H&M), it isn't as straight forward. We often see fast fashion brands promoting recycling or take back schemes of used clothing to promote further production and sales of fast fashion. It kind of defeats the purpose if you ask us.
Recycling is not the answer
Some things cannot be recycled, no matter how much we want them to be. They also pose a danger of completely ruining the recycling process. Some materials like rubber or Christmas lights can clog up the machines and sometimes set them on fire. A less dramatic problem is that the materials will go to the landfill via an extra trip. Those carbon emissions can be avoided if you sort your waste properly in the first place.
Recycling isn’t easy and is not a valid solution to the single-use consumption culture that we have created. However, if we all got educated and tried a little harder when sorting our waste, that 9% figure might increase.
At Spruce, the circular model of our refillable cleaning products promotes reuse before recycling. You can use our bottles forever as they won't break. That's the last cleaning bottle you will ever have to purchase. We have made an extra effort to put an end to recycling guesswork. We hope you enjoy using your Spruce.
Words by Sofya Zakharova