Is Our Plastic Recycling Being Recycled?

We throw a plastic bottle into the white sack and walk away with that warm glow which comes from ‘doing the right thing for the environment’.  What happens next?  It will be recycled… won’t it?  How?  Where?  We don’t know.

In an ideal world, waste is sorted into its constituent parts: paper and cardboard sent to mills for pulping; drinks cans re-created from recycled aluminum (largely, old drinks cans); glass washed and reused in more or less its original state or smashed and melted down to create new glassware.  

Plastics are the biggest problem, because processing discarded plastic is expensive and complicated and the market for it in its reprocessed state small.  About two-thirds of the UK’s plastic recycling goes overseas to be recycled, where it can be done more cheaply.  China used to import most of the world’s plastic waste but from 2018 they have refused to import anything less than 99.5% pure.  Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Turkey then offered to process the contents of our recycling bags, although Turkey has very recently (19 May 2021) refused to take anymore.

But how efficiently was recycling being carried out in these countries? An investigation by Greenpeace1 found evidence of packaging from well-known British supermarkets discarded in illegal dump sites in (tropical) Malaysia and recycling bags from three London local authorities ripped open and piled with other plastic bags.  One dump was 10 feet high and covered a 5-acre site.  Nearby residents were complaining of fumes.  Sometimes waste is wrongly labelled – by mistake or deliberate deception?  Plastics were burned at a paper mill in Indonesia because they had arrived from the UK labelled ‘cardboard’.  Our recycling is being sent abroad to countries where there is no proper monitoring of waste processing, and the uncomfortable questions are not being asked.  Andrew McAfee2 believes that recycling plastic is not worth the bother, as transporting, sorting and processing it uses up too much by way of energy resources, especially as so much of it ends up in landfill.

So, if we cannot depend upon our recycled plastics being actually recycled, what can we do towards Sustainability Development Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, to achieve environmentally sound management of chemicals and all waste? 

We can reduce the amount of plastic we use and throw away, especially in packaging.  We can put our shopping into ‘bags for life’ and buy fruit and vegetables loose, placing them for weighing in the reusable net bags which are available in most supermarkets.  The Americans have carried their shopping out the supermarket in sturdy paper bags since time immemorial.  Unfortunately, we have little control over packaging when we order online, except (where possible) to use suppliers, like The Body Shop, who deploy paper-based packaging, which can be recycled more readily.  All that sarcastic talk of ‘knocking down a tree’, which we used to hear a decade ago, pales into insignificance when considering the plastic waste crisis  

We must think before we throw anything into the white recycling bag.  If recycling is contaminated, with food or other residues, it automatically goes into waste for landfill or incineration.  We should rinse out everything we recycle.  Clean items are more suitable for processing into what they were before.  

We should consult any recycling instructions on the label.  The mobius loop (three twisted arrows) indicates that the item in question may be recycled, but not where and how.  

‘Widely recycled’ means what it says, acceptable to most waste-management operations, but we should make the effort to ‘check local recycling’ if directed to do so, as local recycling companies have different equipment and vary in what they can accept.  Plastic bottles and containers are ‘widely recycled’ but their tops, including lever-pump tops, should (as a general rule) be put with general rubbish.  When bottles are baled at the processing plant, air trapped within plastic bottles with their tops on can cause them to ‘pop’ and force the bales apart.  

What recycling processing plants cannot deal with is items made up of several materials – paper and plastic, for instance.  Most take-away coffee cups, which have a bonded polyethylene liner, makes them unsuitable for paper or plastic recycling (with a few exceptions, such as at National Trust venues in UK).  The disappointing but correct advice given by experts is, if we’re not sure, to put the item in question into general rubbish.

Let’s find alternatives to plastic where possible, for instance, beeswax sandwich wraps, available from Waitrose and from Beeswax Wrap Co, although, unfortunately, the price is prohibitive.  

‘Compostable’ bags rot down in the garden composter into minute pieces within a six-month period.  Amazon sell a range of these, more expensive than your average bags, but not eye-wateringly so.  

Ethical distributors, such as Riverford Organic Farmers, use these with their fruit and vegetable boxes – and we can reuse them afterwards.

And there are all things we probably do already, like reusing the plastic containers and bags that still come our way.  There are many internet sites bursting with creative ways to repurpose household plastic items, which may well put us in mind of ‘things to do with children on a wet afternoon’, but are good ideas nonetheless.  On a more everyday note, the robust white plastic containers in which we receive our Chinese takeaways are brilliant for storing left-overs in the fridge and in the freezer, for picnics and storage generally.  No need for Tupperware these days.  

Plastic carrier bags (oh so despised!) are good as wastebin liners.  Smaller bags are good for dog poo and cat litter.  An unfortunate consequence of British supermarkets being prohibited by law from giving away carrier bags is that we now buy bin liners.

We don’t have to be a ‘throw-away society’. In fact, if we look at how our parents and grandparents used whatever came their way, we realise how recently we became one.  Time yet to relearn how to use and reuse plastic responsibly.

Rosemary

May 2021

References:

https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/21/uk-household-plastics-found-in-illegal-dumps-in-malaysia/ 

https://www.insider.com/mit-research-andrew-mcafee-says-recycling-is-useless-2019-10 

Do you agree?  Tell us what you think – email: tellus@whatcanyoudo.earth or via our “Social Media Channels” (Top Right of our landing page)

“tellus” is a Latin word meaning “Earth” e.g. Tellus Mater the ancient Roman Earth Mother Goddess

How you can protect life below water

“I will always check that the seafood I buy comes from sustainable sources”

As we come closer to the delivery of our WCYDo App, where you’ll be able to select your own Actions taking you towards your chosen goal, we are currently working on effective ways to maintain your motivation!  We recently re-worded our actions to be more assertive, eg. from ‘Buy fair trade…’ to “I will buy fair-trade…” helping to give App users a helpful kick up the bum!  Upcoming blogs are going to focus on how the Actions you select in the App can be carried out.  Today, I’m focusing on Life Below Water (SDG 14).

What we learned from Seaspiracy, and facts about the ocean

The vast blue ocean that divides our lands is a beautiful and mysterious world within itself. Sadly human activity has, like most gifts, used it as an infinite resource for more consumption.  A recent Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, shone a dark light on the horrific consequences of marine fishing.  Showing the inhumane slavery used in fishing industries, the fake pink colouring of pale grey salmon.  How fishing activities such as shrimp farming have huge knock-on effects to deforestation and other species endangerment.  How a garbage truckload of plastic is dumped in the sea every minute – 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets(!) – and over 300,000 whales and dolphins are unintentionally killed as “by-catch” each year and last but not least, sustainable fishing stamps on tuna (tinned or fresh) are simply not guaranteed.

The ocean is super important as it produces ‘over half of the world’s oxygen and absorbs 50 times more carbon dioxide than our atmosphere.  It actually covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and the sea is the key player in regulating our climate and weather pattern.  So we’ve got to protect it, and we’ve got to do so quickly!

Seaspiracy says ‘one of the greatest threats to our oceans is not from plastic straws – which make up about 0.03% of plastic entering our oceans – but fishing nets’.  At the end of the day, fishing nets are used because we buy fish.

Decent Work and Economic Growth (G8)

When we say ‘fisherman’, there is a romantic view of a wholesome group of singing, pole-lining fisherman going out on wooden boats, but the reality is when we say ‘fisherman’ we are talking about employees (and sometimes slaves) of industry giants with huge metal ships going out to sea and taking more than we need.  Of course, people are a big part of the sustainability of the world and have to be considered.  If we all swung to the extreme of not eating fish, jobs would be lost.  So to help maintain jobs, we must pay really close attention to where we’re buying our fish, what businesses we’re supporting, and the information behind the source.

What Can You Do?

Sure, you could buy more sustainable fish.  But what is sustainable fish…really?  In an ideal world, sustainable fishing would mean fair-trade businesses that pay a fair wage, and pole lined fish (as to not lose nets in the ocean and other unintended consequences).  We wouldn’t waste and only take the needed amount of fish, leaving enough behind to continue the ocean eco-system.  But as we stated before, sustainable labels aren’t guaranteed and farmed salmon isn’t exactly healthy!

The best way to save the ocean is simple, leave it alone. What’s more sustainable for Life Below Water (and ultimately ourselves) than quitting, or at least reducing our fish intake?

I know what you may be thinking, “yet, another thing I have to give up”.  It is sad, but when become more conscious consumers, we alter the demand and make space for new companies to emerge who provide more ethical choices for us.

When we’re heading towards empty oceans by 2048, we need to consider the big question: What do we really need from this scaly, wet, sentient species?  Well, it’s mostly protein, omega, and something to complement chips.  When it comes to protein, there are many equally nutritious alternatives such as various beans, peas, eggs, oats, and soy.  When it comes to Omega 3, you can buy effective alternatives made from Algae Oil, they are a plant-based omega that comes directly from the seaweed – you can Google this, I highly recommend it!  And when it comes to the chips…well, I’ll leave that to you to be creative – ever had Vegan ‘Tofish & Chips’?

We’d love to know your thoughts on the subject!  Do you have any alternatives you recommend or ideas on how to be more sustainable?

Best

Eliza

May 2021

References:

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/why-care-about-ocean.html

https://earth.org/facts-from-seaspiracy/

https://www.mcsuk.org/goodfishguide/

Do you agree?  Tell us what you think – email: tellus@whatcanyoudo.earth or via our “Social Media Channels” (Top Right of our landing page)

“tellus” is a Latin word meaning “Earth” e.g. Tellus Mater the ancient Roman Earth Mother Goddess