Exploring the problems with plastics and recycling for Plastic Free July.
I find the messaging around recycling misleading and frustrating. Mostly, this messaging comes from companies who produce and profit off of plastic. They defend recycling as the solution to our problem with plastic pollution and they claim their products are not harmful because they are recyclable. In this longer than usual post, I wanted to explore in more detail why this idea is so damaging, and to argue that claiming recyclability as a environmental benefit of plastic is actually greenwashing.
I've seen a few adverts that use this motif, but one that I think stands out most to me is Coca Cola. They are one of the largest and most unethical corporations in existence, receiving a rating of only 2/20 by Ethical Consumer. They have a long history of workers rights violations and have been boycotted twice for taking water from rural locations and falsifying environmental data.
In order to neutralise peoples perception of their product and it's environmental harm they ask the consumer to recycle their bottles after use - Love story: our first advert made from recycled packaging (coca-cola.eu) - instead of taking meaningful action to clean up their company and product line.
One of the reasons that this tactic frustrates me as much as it does is because it is asking the consumer to take on the responsibility, as the last person in the line after manufacturing, producing, distributing and selling this product. It is not fair and it is not sustainable.
A toxic relationship with plastic:
The UK has the second largest rate of plastic pollution per person, per year. We are only seconded by the United States in terms of how much plastic each person in our country wastes. 1 Yet, the UK doesn't actually produce most of the plastic it uses, neither does it process the recycling we collect. We consume and we waste.
Around two thirds of our plastic waste is exported and the majority of it is sent to Turkey, who take our mixed plastics. Most of that plastic is classified as dirty and unsorted meaning it is very likely to be illegally dumped, usually on open ground, or burnt. 2
New regulations were put in place in January 2021, which hoped to curb the international trade of plastics. It is an unfair system which sees wealthy countries selling off their waste to less developed countries who cannot handle the volumes, nor have adequate facilities to sort and recycle the materials they receive.
The EU banned shipments of unsorted plastics, but the UK has made less stringent promises. Instead, they allow exports so long as there is prior agreed consent from the importer to take the waste. 3 This may seem ok, considering the receiving country can refuse to accept the waste on offer. However, it is far from a just system as taking in waste is a valuable source of income for some developing countries making it hard to refuse it.
We have an unhealthy relationship with plastic. As a product it is not inherently bad or evil, it has many important qualities, such as being strong, shatter proof, lightweight and flexible. Our use of it, specifically for single-use or short-lived products, is the real problem.
Plastic as a commodity:
Plastic was invented in 1907 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. His invention was originally called Bakelite and was dark in colour. It is not what we think of when we imagine plastic today but at the time, Baekeland saw it's potential for mass-production and it became a key component in the affordable abundance of 1920s art deco. 4
What we would now consider plastic was brought about some time later in the early 1930s due to a collaboration between the chemical companies and the crude oil industries. They were looking to find a way of using the waste materials from refining oil and natural gas. What they created was the polyethylene based plastics that we use today.
So, our everyday plastics are made from fossil fuels, and they have been in mass-production since the 1950's. The rate of production has increased exponentially since then. A study in 2015, estimated that a total of 9 billion tons of plastic had been produced up to that point in time. Of that plastic, only 9% had been recycled, 12% had been incinerated and the remaining 79% had been thrown away into landfill or the natural environment.
The simple answer to why plastic is such a big commodity is money, not necessity. It is a billion dollar industry that is linked politically and economically to oil and gas companies. Those companies are getting rich quickly on new plastics, there is little money in recycling because it is so difficult, but it makes for a very good lie.
This is all summed up quite nicely in this quote found in an NPR article from 2020 5
"..the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true.
"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry.."
This quote hit home for me and made me quite upset. I felt compelled to share what I'd read and learnt with you, especially during Plastic Free July because now more than ever people are thinking about plastic and their part in the climate crisis.
Why doesn't recycling work?
Plastic taking hundreds if not thousands of years to break down, and only into smaller parts called micro-plastics, is truly terrifying. The source of this threat is plastic in our natural environment, but the reason it is there at all - in the oceans, in the air, in the snow of Antarctica and in human blood - is because it has been dumped. This is the real problem and it stems from how hard plastic is to recycle.
There are 4 things you need to know to understand why plastic can't be recycled as easily as we're led to believe:
There are 7 types of plastics, classified by the different temperatures they were formed at. These different plastics can't be mixed during recycling or the end product will not have structural integrity and is unfit for use. These plastics are hard to tell apart and contamination is a big problem. 5
There are some plastics called thermoset, which have been treated in such a way that they become rigid as they are heated and the chemical bonds can't be reversed. These plastics are unrecyclable. They include things like electrical appliances, plug casing, storage boxes, toys and medical equipment. 6
Common items made with plastic have other components in them as well. Think of a coffee cup, it is made of paper with a layer of plastic inside to keep it waterproof and heat resistant. It is incredibly difficult to separate components that have been bonded like this and that is why 99.75% of coffee cups don't get recycled. 7
You may have heard of upcycling, but have you also heard of downcycling? This is what happens to plastic, and as such it can't be part of a circular economy. Plastic degrades each time it is recycled therefore losing value and eventually having to be discarded. 8
We also have to be careful about falling into other traps like wishcycling. This is when we're unsure if a material is recyclable, so we put it in the recycling bin anyway hoping that it will be dealt with appropriately at the other end. More often than not, this actually leads to contaminated batches and more waste as a result. Recycling should be done properly, in line with the collection rules to have the best effect.
So, what should we do?
One of the best things we can do for our future is to change how we consume. Recycling comes after a material has lost usefulness in it's original form, but there are many solutions that can help us to refuse, reduce, reuse, refill and repurpose plastic before it gets to that stage.
We need to be moving towards a circular economy. As mentioned before, recycling plastic doesn't fit this model as it degrades with each round of recycling. A circular economy is the most sustainable, not only due to the lack of waste output, but it also reduces the need for new resources being input into the system.
As consumers we can use our pound to let companies know what we want and how we want our future to be. Being a conscientious shopper choosing unpackaged or plastic free products pushes up demand. It should make them more affordable in the long run, but it will also encourage the economy to move towards a more sustainable model. After all, there isn't any benefit to making products that people don't buy.
Additionally, we need to push for better recycling and waste management here in the UK. The banning of exported plastic waste would be ideal, but it does need to come with better recycling infrastructure as well so that we can deal with the waste already in the system. I'd recommend supporting groups like Greenpeace and Everyday Plastics, who have been collaborating this year on The Big Plastic Count. They have a petition currently online asking our government to tackle the plastic waste problem.
It's hard to read some of these statistics and it can make our efforts feel like a drop in the ocean. I think it's important to remember that we need more than just you, or me, doing sustainable things. We need everyone to do their bit, so spread the word! Share the petition, tell people about how to recycle materials properly and ask them if they've ever been to a refill shop. If they say no bring, them along when you next visit us!
Most zero waste shops in the UK are run by individuals. We are independent, small and local, set up because of passion and concern for the environment. What we really need is a large-scale shift in mind-set. Environmental concern needs to stop being niche or alternative. One day, I hope we won't need little shops like ours because it will be easy to buy without plastic wherever you are. But, right now we are leading the charge, fighting against economic, social and global challenges and it is incredibly difficult. If you can support us, please do.
I hope you've found this post insightful.