Is recycling plastics worth it?

Recycling has seen a lot of bad news in recent months, with reports that some of our recycling sent overseas is dumped or burned. It can be frustrating to see that, despite our efforts, our recycling can be dealt with in a way that is bad for the environment. It can make recycling feel hopeless and cause confusion about the best way to act as citizens.

The good news is that more often than not, our recycling is dealt with properly, and there is hope for our recycling. Our latest blog explores the recycling system and reasons we should be positive about the future of our recycling.

What are the benefits of recycling?

By recycling plastic, we are giving the material the best chance to have a new life, keeping it in use and out of the environment. Recycling reduces the need for new plastic made from raw materials, saving energy and carbon in the process. It takes 75% less energy to make a plastic bottle using recycled plastic compared to newly made plastic. And remember, sometimes plastic can be the most sustainable packaging choice (read more here), so it’s not always in the environment’s best interest to remove it from our lives completely.

To put it simply – recycling is the best option when it comes to disposing our plastics (where reuse and refill is not an option); giving the material the best chance of a new life rather than going to landfill or being burned for energy.

Why is my plastic recycling sent overseas, and is it actually recycled?

To see how we can improve our recycling system, it helps to first understand where our plastic recycling is sent and how it is tracked and measured.

The UK is currently sending most of our recycled plastic packaging overseas, where it is turned into new products. Historically there has been more demand for our recycling from foreign countries, where it’s cheaper to process. Some countries we have previously sent our recycling to, such as China, have heavily restricted what materials they will accept, to make sure that they are not taking in plastics that are contaminated and of poor quality (e.g. dirty or including items that cannot be recycled).

The recycling industry is regulated, which means that rules are in place to prevent illegal shipments of waste being sent abroad, where there is a bigger risk of it being dumped. However, in a small number of cases rogue traders commit this crime and/or the recycling is not sorted to a good enough quality. The Environment Agency is responsible for enforcing the rules and this involves checks of some shipments before they are sent overseas. Last year 1,889[1] shipping containers were inspected by the Environment Agency and harsh fines issued to companies that were found to have broken the rules.

It’s clear that the recycling system is not perfect, and that some recycling is slipping through the net – however there are positive moves happening to make the recycling system better for the future.

How is our plastic recycling tracked?

At Clear on Plastics, and our parent brand WRAP, we are often asked how much plastic packaging is recycled and what is counted as ‘recycling’.

Recycling companies report on the amount of sorted plastic that enters their recycling facilities, for example the weight of plastic bottles. When it comes to measuring exported plastics, it is the total amount that is sent abroad. It is these numbers of ‘input’ material into a recycling process that is counted as recycling.

However, whether the material is processed in the UK or abroad, some material is usually lost in the system. For example, the labels around plastic bottles are unlikely to be recycled.

While measuring the ‘output’ from a recycling process would be a better way to measure the weight of our recycling, it is more difficult, especially when material is sent abroad.

Another important thing to consider when we are measuring recycling is how much plastic is used in the first place, since we are measuring the recycling as a part of this. Larger companies responsible for plastic packaging are required to share information and data about the amount of plastic they produce, and this is added to estimates for plastic use from smaller companies.

Making our recycling easier to track and measure is a key part of improving the recycling system, as we explore next…

What’s happening to make our recycling system better?

Firstly, in the UK we need to reduce our reliance on sending our plastic recycling abroad and invest in recycling in this country. This will make it easier to track and monitor the recycling process and reduce the possibility of our recycling being dealt with irresponsibly, as well as being better for our economy.

UK governments are putting policies in place to improve recycling systems:

  • Firstly, a new Plastics Tax means that any packaging with less than 30% recycled content in it will be taxed (i.e. costs applied to those that do not meet this target). This helps to create more need for recycled plastic as a material, keeping the price for recycled plastic more stable.
  • Another policy is Extended Producer Responsibility, based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle – it means that businesses that use non-recyclable plastic will pay more into the waste management system than those that use recyclable plastic.
  • Importantly, consistency in recycling collections will be put into place that means that everyone, whether they be at home or at work, will be able to recycle the same types of plastics.
  • Deposit return schemes, which reward people for recycling items like plastic bottles, will be rolled out to increase recycling and reduce litter.
  • To make it easier for people to understand what can and can’t be recycled (reducing the contamination of recycling that was mentioned earlier), all packaging will be labelled with recycling information.

But many of these policies are a few years’ away from implementation, and the plastic problem is now. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for these policies to come into place, and many businesses are already making changes. The UK Plastics Pact is a world-first initiative run by WRAP (Clear on Plastics’ parent organisation) which involves many businesses working together towards targets to eliminate unnecessary plastic, introduce refillable options, and ensure plastic packaging is recycled. Find out more about The UK Plastics Pact.

Reducing the amount of non-recyclable items in our recycling (contamination) is important, as this means that the materials sent for recycling are of better quality for recycling and stand the best chance of being turned into new items. WRAP is working closely with companies to ensure recycling labelling is clear and understandable, and educating people through our sister brand, Recycle Now, to make it easier for everybody to recycle more things, more often, in the right way.

In summary, lots of moves are being made across the industry to improve the recycling infrastructure, monitor our recycling to ensure it is dealt with in the right way, and make recycling easier for people at home. Change won’t happen overnight, but we are heading in the right direction, and WRAP is committed to bringing about real, sustainable action to make our recycling worth it.

How can I get my recycling right?

Getting our recycling right is one way we can all make a difference. By reducing the amount of ‘contaminants’, i.e., non-recyclable products in our recycling, it stands a better chance of being recycled properly.

Visit www.recyclenow.com to find out more about what can be recycled where you live. There is a handy Recycling Locator where you can enter your postcode to get the right information for your area.

Top tips for recycling plastics:

  • Most of us cannot recycle plastic bags and wrapping at home, but supermarkets are currently rolling out recycling collections at the front of their stores– check out Recycle Now’s Recycling Locator to see if this is available where you live.
  • All of us can recycle plastic bottles at home – just make sure it is empty, crush the bottle (to save space in the recycling lorry and your bin) and pop the cap back on.
  • Most of us can recycle pots, tubs and trays at home – ensure they are empty, any films and sleeves are removed, and give it a quick rinse if it is dirty.
  • Plastic toys and electronics often cannot be recycled at home, but generally are accepted at local recycling centres or can be donated to charity shops.
  • If in doubt, visit https://www.recyclenow.com/local-recycling to see what you can recycle where you live.

[1] https://resource.co/article/environment-agency-condemns-illegal-plastic-waste-exports-construction-sector