What a waste: Why recycling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
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Recycling is good, but many products aren’t suitable. Reducing waste is better.
“Most primary school children know all about the waste hierarchy: reduce, reuse, recycle,” says Dr Christine Cole, an academic from Nottingham Trent University who researches what happens to the stuff the UK throws away. “However, we’ve been misled into thinking recycling is the most important part.”
From their earliest years, children are entreated to recycle – there is even an episode of ‘Peppa Pig’ in which the titular hog places discarded packaging into the correct colour-coded bins while singing about it.
The conviction that recycling is a virtuous civic duty lasts right into old age too. When an elderly relative, who arrived in the UK as a refugee in the 1930s, was recently asked by this journalist why she so dutifully separated glass from paper and tin cans from plastic each week, she replied: “Because this country has been good to me.”
Cole believes there has not been nearly enough consideration of the importance of the other two components of the three Rs slogan, however. “Reduction and reuse are better,” she maintains. “We should concentrate on those, but they’re more difficult. You can’t measure them, so they have been ignored to an extent.”
A pertinent case study concerns the fate of billions of single-use coffee cups tossed into the trash by UK caffeine addicts each year. Well-meaning people sometimes mistakenly place these in household recycling bins, but councils are in fact unable to process them because they contain a thin coating of plastic to make them waterproof. In practice, that means they are normally removed from recycling sacks and sent to landfill, as they don’t even meet incineration criteria.
A niche organisation called Simply Cups is now working in the City of London to try and recycle millions of disposable cups jettisoned by workers in the financial district, but that is a drop in the ocean in terms of the numbers being thrown away annually. The process is also sufficiently resource intensive to lead experts to question whether it is really worthwhile.
“We shouldn’t just be focusing on recycling, because that’s just midway down the waste hierarchy,” says Dr Chris Sherrington, head of environmental policy and economics at consultancy Eunomia. “We should really be focusing on prevention at source.”
Eunomia is “firmly of the view that you need a charge on coffee cups, and arguably on other single-use cups, like the milkshake cups with the straws”, he adds. “Yes, technically they [the coffee cups] may well be able to be recycled, but the real challenge is to collect meaningful numbers. It’d be interesting to see the economics underpinning current collection schemes.”
Levying a compulsory charge on all throw-away coffee cups would, Sherrington says, be comparable to the 5p fee for plastic carrier bags – a measure credited with dramatically reducing disposable bag use. UK shoppers now increasingly carry reusable bags. This behavioural change has, in turn, prevented some plastic from finding its way into the sea.
The quality, or lack thereof, of the UK’s ‘recyclate’ – the stuff sent for processing at materials recovery facilities – is fast becoming an issue on the international political radar.
China, the destination for large quantities of Europe and North America’s recyclable material, recently moved to ban imports of all scrap plastics, certain metals, textile waste and unsorted mixed paper due to concern over toxic consignments.
In a letter to the World Trade Organisation, the government of the one-party state cited hazardous contamination as a reason for its decision, which has led to bottlenecks at already strained recycling facilities in several countries.
Waste experts often debate whether it is better to ‘comingle’ household recycling – in other words, to ask households to put all recyclable material into the same box or bag – or encourage them to separate metals, plastics, paper, glass and so on. While the former approach is said to result in an increase in the amount of material being recycled, it also tends to lead to a decline in quality – precisely the issue that has led to China’s problematic decision.
Sweet wrappers, crisp packets and stained pizza boxes are just some of the non-recyclable interlopers that workers in waste management facilities regularly find intermingled with legitimate recycling items such as newspapers and empty beer cans.
Confusion around recycling is not helped by the fact that each local authority in England decides independently how it wants to administer its waste collection system.
According to a report published earlier this year by think tank Policy Exchange, there are more than 400 different collection systems for recycling across the country. Environmental organisation Wrap is seeking to remedy this, with plans to achieve standardisation across England by 2025. The landscape is further complicated by the fact that the devolved administrations of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales set their own discrete policies.
Wrap’s press officer Clare Usher says some items, such as plastic bottles, glass and paper, can be recycled almost everywhere, as can objects such as empty deodorant cans, which she says are often not placed into household recycling owing to lack of awareness.
For Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, bad product design is partly to blame for the problem of poor quality recyclate. The Pringles tube is his particular bête noire.
“To recycle Pringles tubes properly and in full, you’ve got to extract all the components,” he says. “The problem is they contain essentially five different elements. You’ve got the cardboard outer layer, which has then got a poly lining so the food doesn’t get contaminated, then you’ve got a metal bottom – which is the bit I just don’t understand – which is bonded to the cardboard. I just don’t get the idea of it.
“Let’s say the whole thing ends up in your recycling bin. In all probability it will end up in the paper or cardboard recycling bin because most of it is cardboard. That then goes to the paper mill, to the pulper. It will go into the pulper and they will be able to remove the ink and recover the fibre from the tube.
“The poly liner probably gets lost in the process because it’s very thin, but the metal is extracted as waste, the lid is extracted as waste and the foil is extracted as waste. In the best case scenario that will then go to a waste-to-energy facility and, potentially, the metal base might get recovered magnetically and then be recycled.”
In short, it’s just too much exhausting work for relatively marginal gains.
Kellogg, which owns Pringles, insists it is working to improve its environmental performance, adding that the design of the tube keeps the crisps fresh, allowing for a longer shelf life, which minimises food waste.
Ellin says: “They are using up valuable resources in the supply chain because of poor design. It also disillusions the householder.”
Canny consumers who want to reduce their waste footprint are meanwhile turning to the increasing numbers of packaging-free shops springing up in towns and cities – places like Bulk Market in the London neighbourhood of Dalston, or The Zero Waste Shop in Totnes, Devon.
They make a virtue of the fact that it is better to have nothing to recycle in the first place. Maybe it’s time Peppa Pig taught that to the nation’s toddlers.
Fed up putting out the bins each week? The solution could simply be to forgo rubbish as far as is possible.
Sarah Lewis, a self-confessed “tree-hugger” from London, is one of a growing number of people to have embraced a zero-waste lifestyle. She buys groceries from one of several packaging-free shops, tries not to accumulate possessions and keeps a small jar containing all the rubbish she has generated in the past six months. It is probably less than half of what many people throw away in the course of a single week. Perhaps she should receive a discount on her council tax.
Three years ago, when she was getting interested in waste and what it reveals about societies, she “did a massive decluttering thing” and “got rid of loads of stuff”. She also spoke to her grandmother to get tips on reusing containers, as was common practice in days gone by.
She says: “I got rid of about two-thirds of my possessions, and I felt so good. It just made me really question my attitude to stuff and think about how I’d even accumulated so much rubbish and junk in the first place.
“It just made me think differently about consumption and shopping.”
She points out that plastic is only a recent invention and people lived modern lifestyles for decades without recourse to single-use packaging.
“We’re much richer now than we used to be,” she says. “We are exceptionally wealthy in some respects, but if you are poor you value everything more.
“The idea of actually buying something that you use just once and then sending to landfill seems crazy. It seems really odd that you would pay for something, even just packaging on a product, and use it for a very short time and then throw it away. I mean, it’s materials. It’s money you’ve invested in something.”
There are countless blogs and Instagram accounts devoted to chronicling people’s zero-waste lives – some seem almost competitive – but are there any simple rules to the practice?
“It’s common for zero-wasters to avoid all plastic,” says Lewis. “But in some ways, glass, because it’s heavier and can be used to carry liquids, can have a higher carbon footprint if it has travelled a long way. Sand is also running out. So it’s not as simple as you should always buy glass and not plastic. You should just buy less stuff and reuse stuff, I think.”
Above all, she recommends reducing consumption.
“If you think throwing away one single-use coffee cup is wasteful, how much more wasteful is it if you have an entire garage full of junk that you just don’t use? So don’t buy loads of stuff in the first place, and if you do need to buy things, buy second-hand.”