Recycling: the confusing activity we’ve all become conscripted in as penance for buying stuff. In the real world strategy game of ‘The Recycling Bins’, we must navigate through swathes of stickers, converging arrows, and green triangles to determine the correct receptacle for each material. All the while discerning urban legend from the truth as to whether black plastic, cling film or bottle lids are acceptable, and pitching your flag on either side of whether or not to wash it before you bin it. When referring to the rulebook of ‘check your local recycling’ for miscellaneous containers, little enlightenment is offered from the minuscule stamped triangle with a number on the bottom.
There is little more clarity after the bin, with councils at the whim of an unstandardised recycling system, local authorities are forced to come up with their own playbook, resulting in a variety of blue, green, red, and black bins and bags around the country that all collect the same material. For most though, the same material not enough, with some regions accepting all plastic bottles and nothing else, while others take all plastics, including film, polystyrene and the dreaded black trays. In between, there is an unsystematic medley of plastic combinations so confusing that everything ends up in the bin labelled indiscriminately as ‘plastic’.
There is a massive communication barrier between the producers, disposers, and us when it comes to recycling. Somehow in the sport of ‘to recycle or not to recycle’ households put nearly 19 thousand tonnes into recycling bins in 2016, only 12% of which resurfaced as usable recycled material. Such a gap between recyclable materials and those that are actually coming back as post-consumer products highlights the heavily flawed recycling system in the UK. This is unsettling news given that governments and companies globally are orchestrating in a crescendo of greenwash that they aim for 100% recyclable materials somewhere between now and 2100.
But for all this recycled hope, not much is known about where the waste is actually going. News that China will no longer accept the UK’s waste came as little surprise since no one knew it was being sent there in the first place. Such a revelation has started to reveal cracks in the UK’s recycling system that question its environmental credentials.
For all these well-meaning efforts, is it worth it? As the most marketed R in Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, recycling is being hailed as the answer to our ecological burden, giving the impression that once in the system, a material can go on an indefinite looped journey of reincarnation from a bottle to Tupperware to a phone case and back around again. But in truth, plastic can only be recycled once, perhaps twice in its lifetime. The molecular bonds degrade with processing making a recycled plastic only good for low-quality products or mixed in with fresh material. For plastic, recycling is just a pitstop on the way to the landfill.
That said, it’s far better to use materials that have already been extracted from the ground in order to not waste resources. In the case of metals and glass, there is no limit to the number of times that they can be recycled. But for aluminium cans, the process to break the molecular bonds is so chemically intensive that it is often less environmentally damaging to dispose of the alloy rather than recycle it. From collection to transport to reprocessing, the use of oil for fuel and energy which makes up 87% of global production, versus 4% for plastic, throws an uncomfortable spotlight on the additional factors of recycling that may just make it a nice idea, but not a sustainable one.
Ultimately, it only works when there’s someone at the end of the production line. Post-consumer materials are becoming more common on the supermarket shelves, with Coca-Cola aiming to have between 20 and 50 per cent recycled content in their 20 brands in the UK, and P&G trying to double the amount of recycled resin in packaging by 2020. But the falling prices of recycled plastic, glass and cardboard, while the cost to process the materials stays the same is making many recycling centres at an economically unsustainable cash-loss operation.
As an industry, recycling is beholden to the same market pushes and financial obligations as any other. It is bound by the incoming material so confusingly navigated by us as providers, financially squeezed by the powers that be, and pushed from pillar to post by potential buyers. With China refusing the materials UK recyclers provide, and EU divorce trade laws threatening to make sending it abroad even harder, our waste stream is in jeopardy.
As a sustainable endeavour, recycling is far from the solution. On a world rapidly running out of resources and choking from the level of non-degradable waste in the environment, an industry set up to be a stepping stone between production and landfill will not be the answer to our environmental woes. New materials like bioplastics that are designed to degrade in the natural environment, rather than recycled milk bottles destined to become archaeological artefacts dug up in a civilisations time, will be the genuinely sustainable solution. But with companies blindly crusading recycling as ‘doing their bit for the planet’ and supermarket shelves lined with packaging proudly professing recyclability, perhaps today no packaging is the only way out of the game of The Recycling Bins.