Many of us believe we’re doing our bit for the environment by separating out our plastic waste ready for recycling. But what really happens after we dispose of that empty milk container into the recycling bin? This article looks at how recycling is processed in the UK and outlines some important recycling facts that may influence your efforts to reduce plastic waste going forwards.
Where does recycling go?
There are two main ways to recycle at home. Once sorted, you can leave your recycling out on the kerbside for your local council to collect, or you can take it along to your local recycling centre.
Your recycling is taken to a local recycling depot, where it’s sorted again (to separate glass from plastic, for example) and stored, usually in half-tonne bales, ready for transporting to a re-processor. But where does recycling go then? From there, you probably expect good things to happen to it and visualise it being transformed and reused to make other products. When it comes to plastic waste, the recycling process isn’t all that clear.
What happens to plastic waste?
Around two-thirds of plastic waste is exported to other countries in Asia and Europe, rather than being recycled in the UK. Plastic waste is actually a valuable commodity and is used by other countries to manufacture new products. Before China introduced its ‘National Sword’ policy in 2018 (more on this shortly), it was the single largest plastic waste importer.
From the government’s perspective, it makes good business sense to export plastic waste. The UK doesn’t have the capacity in its domestic recycling infrastructure to recycle all the plastics being produced. Whereas exporting is a cheaper and easier solution and still means the government can meet recycling targets.
Through exporting, the problem of plastic waste is effectively pushed away from our shores and onto other countries that are better equipped for plastics processing. You might think that’s a win-win situation for the UK and those countries needing plastic waste. But it’s not really - because much of the plastic waste being exported ends up as fodder for landfill.
Plastic waste and ‘Operation National Sword’
On 1st January 2018, China closed its doors to 24 types of waste products, including low-grade plastics, under Operation National Sword. Why? Put simply; China was being used as the world’s rubbish dump. Much of the waste being imported wasn’t being done properly, resulting in unsorted, dirty (contaminated) trash that couldn’t be recycled and was destined for landfill or incineration.
Operation National Sword caused a stir around the world, and rightly so. With China’s ban in place, wealthy countries now have to find alternative ways to deal with plastic waste. The latest figures from Statista show that the top plastic waste export destination for the UK is Malaysia.
How much longer that will be the case, we don’t know. Because according to Greenpeace, Britain is still behaving like a ‘long-range fly-tipper’ over its illegal dumping of contaminated plastic waste.
How much plastic waste is recycled?
Plastic can only be recycled if it’s of good quality, meaning that it’s uncontaminated, not degraded and recyclable to begin with. Technically, all type of plastics could, in theory, be recycled. But we don’t have the systems or finances in place to do so. This is why we’re told to recycle some packaging, but not others. Fruit packaging trays are a good example. Usually, the hard plastic tray can be recycled, but the thin film lid cannot.
The exact figures for UK plastic waste generation and plastic recycling are somewhat sketchy, most likely because of different reporting methods (and under-reporting in some cases). A quick internet search will bring up a mix of statistics. But a reliable source in our opinion is a 2018 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) titled: Plastics Consumption and Waste Management in the UK.
The report claims that 4.9 million tonnes of plastic waste were generated in the UK in 2014, with a future projection of 6.3 million tonnes by 2030. 67% of the UK’s plastic waste was reported to be packaging. In 2014, 26% of UK plastic waste was recycled, 55% was sent to landfill, 18% was incinerated, and 1% was littered.
It’s believed that 31% of plastic waste was recycled in 2018, with this figure increasing to 42% by 2030 due to environmental policies taking effect. Note that these figures are for all plastic waste. For single-use plastics, the estimated UK recycling rate for 2018 was lower at 29%. (Note that worldwide, only 9% of plastics are recycled.)
When all’s said and done, plastic can only be recycled once or twice at the most, because polymers break down during the process. So while recycling is beneficial to the environment, it’s not the ultimate solution in tackling the plastic pollution crisis.
Summary of plastic waste recycling facts
Let’s sum up what we now know about plastic waste and where recycling goes. In short, the majority of UK plastic waste is sent (sold) overseas for recycling. It’s a valuable commodity, and there is undoubtedly a market for plastic recycling. But the problem is that a fair bit of our plastic recycling is illegal. Several UK plastic waste exporters have already had their licences suspended for abusing the system.
China recognised what was happening and put a stop to it. But other countries are now becoming dumping grounds for the UK’s plastic waste. (Not just the UK’s waste mind you). The hard truth is that when you use plastic items at home and dispose of them (even into your recycling bin), they might well end up scattered on a landfill site halfway across the world. So what’s the answer?
Reduce plastic waste
If you really want to make a difference in the war on plastics, the single most important thing you can do as an individual is reduce your plastic consumption. Be mindful of the items you’re buying and say no to packaging. Search for plastic alternatives. There are plenty about - take our reusable coffee cups, silicone baking mats and beeswax food wraps as examples.
Still continue to recycle - this is essential because some plastic waste does indeed get a new home. And to improve the chances of your recycling actually being recycled, check that you’re doing it properly. Let’s face it - recycling is confusing!
Different councils have different rules about what they will or won’t collect. Check the Recycle Now website to see what you can put in your various bins or contact your council directly. Also, check the label on each piece of packaging to see if it can be recycled. Finally, rinse out any plastic containers and remove paper labels and glue to give them the best chance of staying clean and uncontaminated.
If you’d like to learn more about what happens to plastic waste in the UK, check out this eye-opening documentary - Dirty Business - what really happens to your recycling.