Category Archives: Recycling

WHAT’S IN YOUR BIN?

The Environmental Impact of Consumerism

Since deciding to have a serious look at living without plastic some 18 months ago, we have had to radically change the way we go about shopping. With very few exceptions, we do not buy any single-use plastic. Gone are the days of filling a shopping trolley with whatever we fancy and can afford, or shopping online for convenience. In the beginning I was fascinated and excited by the task of finding alternatives to plastic and I spent a considerable amount of time seeking out unpackaged food and household items made from newly invented and natural materials. I also rediscovered second hand shops and flea markets. But as time went on my enthusiasm waned with the realisation that the issues about waste and pollution are more complicated and that consumption, of whatever kind, always has an environmental impact.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘consumer’ but when we participate in the economy of the free market, that’s what we are. Goods and services are made available at shops or at the click of a button, 24/7, all year round. Companies are driven by shareholder return and individuals are driven by the thrill of buying – it’s a perfect match. We don’t just buy what we truly need. We get hooked on wanting things that are new and exciting: convenient food, the latest health products, the next phone upgrade, and we love a bargain such as designer clothes for less, two for the price of one…

So, what is in my bins? Raw and cooked food scraps are in their respective composting bins. Paper, cardboard, glass, batteries, light bulbs, foil and tin are in the recycling boxes. There’s a bag of odds and ends for the charity shops. Items that cannot be reused or recycled are in the trash which is now a fraction of what it used to be. Curiously, now that the non-recyclable waste has shrunk to an amount so small that it doesn’t even warrant a bag, I feel even more responsible for it. I don’t feel good about the recycling box either. I look at the amount of cardboard and glass bottles and it suddenly seems an excessive way to package things that only give a moment of pleasure but demand precious resources, as well as man and machine power.

I was interviewed for a recent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth on recycling, called ‘Where does our waste go?’ I joined the team on a tour of a large, modern sorting facility (MRF) in Birmingham that sorts 80,000 tons per year of domestic recycling collected by different Councils. The facility produces bales of different materials to sell on but there still were heaps of unsorted rubbish at the end of the process due to mixed materials and contaminated materials, which is typically shipped abroad. For example, the facility cannot process Tetrapak cartons which are made of paper, plastic and aluminium. Some of the already sorted piles were so full of small pieces of plastic that the material being sorted was unrecognisable. All I could see in the glass pile was coloured bits of hard plastic such as bottle caps and broken biros, clothes hangers, bits of toys and so on. The radio programme was good but narrowly focussed on what is being collected for recycling in the UK without reference to the much larger proportion of waste that is not recycled. In terms of plastic, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling worldwide. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 5% of material value is retained for a subsequent use (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2016).

We are not coping with the tsunami of waste being created despite recycling efforts and plastic waste is our biggest problem right now. Only last month new reports were published about microplastic particles in drinking water and table salt. Plastic particles are already all around us in rivers, soil, remote arctic ice, deep-sea beds, in the food chain and even in our own bodies. Recycling is often cited as the solution, conveniently making the problem of plastic pollution the responsibility of the ‘consumer’ and tax payer rather than looking at cutting plastic production by commercial industries. In the UK, recycling collection figures are declining, making recycling even less effective than it already is.

If we don’t want to be reduced to simply being consumers, we need to stop behaving as such. We need to learn about the environmental impact of the things we buy not only in terms of waste but also in terms of resources used, production methods and transportation. Cotton and polyester clothing, for example, have a devastating impact on the environment in terms of chemicals and water used during production. Compostable plant-based plastic, hailed as the eco alternative to petroleum-based plastic, competes for arable land and is even causing deforestation to satisfy demand.

Lately I have found myself contemplating items before buying them, scrutinizing them carefully, asking myself why I want them in the first place? I wonder where the item was made, what materials were used, how it was transported, how the workers were paid and how the raw material was mined? I often return empty handed from a shopping trip for clothes, shoes and other everyday items. I didn’t need them after all! What has replaced the thrill of buying is the desire to cherish and look after things I already have. I want to have a less cluttered life and surround myself with objects that are unique, beautiful, useful and leave a small footprint.

What’s in my bins has made me think about what I most value and what I really need and enjoy. Scrutinize the contents of your bins and let them give you some feedback. The process might lead you to a new and positive relationship with the things you value most in your life.

More information:

Costing the Earth: Where does our waste go?
BBC Radio Four, October 2017 – featuring yours truly for a few seconds at 16:30

Production, use and fate of all plastics ever made
Roland Geyer, University of California, Santa Barbara, July 2017

Sea salt around the world is contaminated by plastic, studies show
The Guardian, September 2017

Plastic fibres found in tap water around the world, study reveals
The Guardian, September 2017

ONE YEAR – ONE BAG OF PLASTIC

We have just reached our first anniversary of creating a plastic-free household. During the past year we concentrated mainly on unpackaged food, cleaning materials, toiletries and plastic-free clothing. We have collected every scrap of plastic packaging that we have accidentally, or otherwise, brought into the house. This has amounted to roughly one large bagful of plastic packaging from medical supplies, items that we bought which had hidden plastic packaging inside, presents that were given to us, and also from items that seemed unavoidable. Considering that UK households produce an average of 56kg of plastic packaging waste a year, our one bag weighing no more than a couple of pounds represents a great achievement.

In reality, our single-use plastic footprint is much larger than the household figures measured by Defra and in our case, it is bigger than the single bagful collected over the course of a year. Much of our plastic waste is created outside the home, for example in the workplace, at school, in restaurants, at the petrol station, at the hairdressers, at the gym, and by pursuing hobbies and other pastimes that take us outside the home. In the supply chain of the goods I conscientiously buy ‘unpackaged’, there are unknown quantities of plastic packaging. We are not the only ones in the dark: at a recent talk given by Tesco on food waste, which I attended in Oxford, I learned that all of the large supermarket retailers “currently don’t understand or know enough” about the plastic packaging waste in their supply chains. This means that the plastic packaging that each of us is ultimately responsible for is not just in our bins at home.

Over this past year I have read report after report, attended events, talked to many people and the story is the same everywhere. Most people think there is too much plastic in their lives and that we should recycle more and develop new materials to replace plastic. However, few talk about the one solution that is surely staring us in the face. The one solution that could prevent further environmental crises and help restore local communities is ethical consumption. Ethical consumption means that you choose only what you need, what has been paid for fairly, what has been made to last, and what has been produced sustainably without hurting people, animals or the earth. I might not be a shining example of the perfect ethical consumer yet, but I am immensely interested in becoming one. It seems to be one of the few things in life that is actually within my power!

Read More:

  • Waste and Resource Statistics_2016 by the Department for Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Plastics_Market_Situation_Report_2016  by UK based WRAP, the world leaders in helping organisations achieve greater resource efficiency. Between 2010 and 2015 in England alone, WRAP initiatives reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 50 million tonnes (Mt), which is equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of Portugal.
  • How did I calculate 56kg of plastic packaging per UK household? I used the most up-to-date figures provided in the two reports above which are for 2014 (new data is collected every two years, so the data for 2016 should be available soon). I applied this to the total number of households in the UK in 2014 as provided by the Office for National Statistics.
  • Article on Ethical Consumerism by Tania Lewis first publishd in 2012

FOOD & DRINK CARTONS ARE 20% PLASTIC

Food and drink cartons look and feel like they are made from cardboard but the 184 billion single use cartons produced annually by market leading giant Tetra Pak contain 20% polyethylene and 5% aluminium. In addition, there are the billions of plastic ‘closures’ (lids to you and I).

Before saying anything else, let me tell you that a mere 23% of those 184 billion cartons are recycled worldwide according to the Tetra Pak website. That means that the other 138 billion cartons are simply wasted, burned, dug into the earth, or worse. Tetra Pak’s overall objective is to double the rate of recycling to 40% by 2020, still leaving a whopping 60% going to waste. Whatever else Tetra Pak claim about the goodness of their products, I think their commitment to sustainability is compromised by these facts and figures.

Tetra Pak asserts that their products are “GOOD FOR YOU, GOOD FOR THE EARTH”. Their ambition is to develop a package made entirely out of material from renewable sources, including polymers derived from sugarcane ethanol. But for now, most of their purchased volumes of polymers are still derived from conventional oil and gas sources. And, whilst the cartons are in theory fully recyclable, Tetra Paks cannot be made with recycled material. If you take the term recycling to mean “recycling of a material to produce a fresh supply of the same material” (Wikipedia), Tetra Paks do not qualify.

I am not a fan of recycling. A better way to protect our natural resources and avoid pollution is to produce less packaging and to curb our consumption. Recycling just means that the disposal of packaging becomes someone else’s problem. Of the miserly estimated 30% of consumer packaging that is actually placed into recycling in the UK, over 67% is exported to other countries, much of it to Asia.

Screenshot from the Tetra Pak website: http://www.tetrapak.com/

Tetra Pak says: “food processing with Tetra Pak is all about helping customers turn their bright ideas into exciting new food products”. Their customers are the global food and drink companies who want to grow their market share. I question why we need these brightly coloured and highly processed products in the first place. What’s in it for us?

The alternative is local, seasonal food and drink, milk delivered in bottles, water from your tap and things made freshly at home or preserved in the old fashioned way. With these simple maxims you don’t need a long shelf life, easy transport across the globe or recycling technologies.

Sources and further information

Tetra Pak recycling data:
http://www.tetrapak.com/in/sustainability/recycling

Tetra Pak facts and figures:
http://www.tetrapak.com/in/about/facts-figures

The Guardian: Only a third of UK consumer plastic packaging is recycled:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/21/only-a-third-of-uk-consumer-plastic-packaging-is-recycled

The Guardian: 67%+ of UK plastic packaging waste exported in 2016:
http://energydesk.greenpeace.org/2017/03/13/data-uk-exporting-two-thirds-plastic-waste-amidst-concerns-illegal-practice/

UK Environment Agency’s packaging waste report:
http://npwd.environment-agency.gov.uk/Public/PublicSummaryData.aspx

Treehugger blog on Tetra Paks (from 2009):
http://www.treehugger.com/corporate-responsibility/in-what-world-can-you-call-tetra-pak-green.html

RECYCLING IS MAKING MY HEAD SPIN

I think there is a big problem with recycling that many have not really considered. When we recycle, we  believe that we are doing something good for the environment. We pay our taxes to the council for waste disposal and we rejoice in the growing percentage of recycling collected across the country. Councils continually encourage us to collected even MORE recycling! But we don’t dwell too much on what happens after we have dutifully filled our recycling bins and put them out to be collected. We somehow feel that we have done our duty and that it is now someone else’s problem or opportunity. After all, we have paid twice for our rubbish: once in the shops, so to speak, and then once more in the form of taxes to get rid of it. We rarely curb our consumerism or repair and reuse – because it’s cheaper to buy new and everything else is recycled anyway. Isn’t it?…

Meanwhile, the demand for products and packaging rises and the mountains of waste continue to litter the oceans and the earth’s raw materials are running out.

This week I have spent a lot of time trying to find out what happens to our recycling once it has been collected. UK recycling statistics differ widely depending on which articles and reports you read. Readily available figures tell us how much is collected by councils but is it really hard to find out how much of it is actually recycled and how. I want to know how much of it is reused or turned into something else useful that does not  burden the environment. In 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was accused of lying to citizens about what happens to their carefully collected recycling. It was alleged that most of the waste shipped abroad for recycling is so contaminated it cannot be used and instead ends up in landfill in countries like China, Indonesia and India. Defra admitted in their own report that once the recycling is out of UK waters it is out of their hands and in most cases they do not know what happens to it.

There are items that can be recycled into the same type of products again and again, such as glass and aluminium for example. The problem lies with plastics and mixed materials. In these cases even the good recycle schemes, like turning plastic bottles into fleece sweaters and other garments, cause unforeseen problems when you look at the entire cycle. Fleeces and other synthetic fabrics shed microplastic particles in the washing machine which are too small to be filtered out by sewage plants. 190,000 tonnes of microplastic particles are washed into the oceans every year (June 2016 report by Eunomia ‘Plastics in the Marine Environment’). This toxic plastic material is ingested by marine life and thus travels up the food chain and wreaks havoc with our eco system. Incineration of plastic bottles to produce electricity is another scheme that is in turn praised and condemned for various reasons but one thing is clear – it relies on the steady supply of more plastic bottles!

I have come to the conclusion that recycling is fraught with difficulty and that without a shadow of a doubt the better alternative is to reduce our waste in the first place. Because of the lack of information and confusing statistics, simplifying things is sometimes really useful: in the final analysis, the world is manufacturing petro-chemical products on a vast scale and ‘recycling’, incinerating or burying petro-chemical products on a vast scale. Just stop it.

REDUCING OUR RUBBISH

Look at these pictures! In the metal bin is one week’s worth of rubbish for landfill in a black bag – a fraction of the amount we usually collect over the space of one week. In the green bag are two week’s worth of plastic, tin and foil for recycling (sporting our last two bottles of shampoo… bye bye liquid shampoo and hello shampoo soap bars). We literally stood staring into the bin when it dawned on us that the landfill rubbish we collect is dramatically shrinking. It was the most gratifying feeling and has really boosted our motivation.

It’s no wonder really when you consider that most of our family shopping is now wrapped in paper bags, or in glass jars, bottles, tins and in our own containers that we take to shops. Our grocery shopping looks quite pretty now I think. Not surprisingly it is also cheaper than buying pre-packed items and there is less food wasted as we only buy small amounts at a time. Gone are the days of bags of pre-washed salad turning to slime in our fridge. I read that 30% of Tesco lettuce is discarded in the process of producing the bagged kind and that the majority of bought lettuce bags are thrown away before they’ve been used up because they sit in our fridges for too long. That is a lot of wasted food and packaging going straight into landfill.

I can’t wait for November when Stroud Council is introducing cooked food waste collection. We put our kitchen scraps on the compost heap but I don’t like putting cooked food on there. Next step: finding an alternative to black bin bags. We thought we might ask the farmer next door if they would let us have the paper bags of animal feed when they are done with them. I wonder whether we can persuade the rubbish collectors to stop throwing black plastic bags on the drive with each collection?