Most plastics can be recycled but that doesn’t mean they are. Recoup have been campaigning for more plastics recycling – particularly of bottles – since the early 1990s. A long time ago I went to open their 100th bottle bank but haven’t really been involved since. So attending their conference this week brought back memories, as well as getting me up to speed on the current state of plastics recycling in the UK – much better than it was but a long way short of where it should be.
One of the biggest problems is that recycling systems vary depending on where you live in the country – so there’s huge confusion amongst the public about what’s recyclable and what’s not. Another is that plastics need sorting into their different types and many products use several different types – for the container, the lid and for the wrapper.
And some containers look identical but are made from different materials, for example one from PET plastic and another from PP (Polystyrene). You should be able to tell by looking at a symbol on the bottom of the container. But it’s not much use if there aren’t any facilities for recycling that type of plastic.
At the moment there’s very little recycling of mixed plastics that’s actually carried out in this country – most of it is shipped off to China. This may not be as bad as it sounds. It means that container ships that would otherwise be empty are going back with a full load. And that the plastic is actually being used to make into something else, rather than ending up in landfill sites at home.
Exporting large volumes of waste materials also drives up the price, giving it some value, which makes it more likely to be collected. What I hadn’t appreciated was that one of the reasons why it makes sense to send it overseas is that cheap labour can be used to sort it.
For plastics recycling to work in this country we need to have good collection and sorting facilities, as well as an end-market for the recycled material. I think there aren’t nearly enough companies using this material in the products they make – the main priority has been to demonstrate that packaging is recyclable, which is very different to being recycled.
Somebody at the conference recounted a story about a plastic container labelled as ‘recyclable’ and underneath it said ‘not easily recycled’ – that’s the sort of muddle we’re in.
More encouragingly, there were a couple of enterprising initiatives represented at the conference, who were starting up companies making useful products out of mixed waste recycled plastic. Rod Fox from Revalue Technologies Ltd explained how the company had developed a concrete replacement product for kerb stones that not only used waste plastic but resulted in a 99% saving in carbon emissions. And Intruplas are making wood replacement products using the same materials.
So perhaps plastics recycling will be a good news story soon, rather than a discussion about what’s possible and desirable but not actually achievable.
This blog was originally published on Telegraph online.