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.

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