There was good news this week as new figures show that recycling has gone up 27% between 2002 and 2006. A third of UK households are now recycling, and that means less waste is going to landfill. Well, a little bit less – we sent 16.1 million tons to landfill in 2007, down from 16.9 million tons in 2006 – but it’s headed in the right direction.
However, I was confronted with a question the other day, something that had never occurred to me. I was asked “Do you know where your recycling goes?”. I replied quickly that “it goes to the recycling place and gets recycled” to which an equally swift response interrupted me. “How do you know it actually goes there? or do you just assume thats where it went?”. I remained silent.
We are always told “Recycle”, “Recycling is the Future” and those of us who actually do it nowadays do so almost without thinking. Black bin bags, clear bin bags – simple. Every week one or the other if not both are off our hands and driven away in the back of trucks and we think nothing else of it. We trust they are going to be recycled but considering its only rubbish, we don’t give it any second thoughts. I think second thoughts is exactly what we need to be giving!
There are over 3000 items that can be recycled. Tyres, bicycles, signposts, pillows, cushion covers, ball point pens, hose pipes, coat pegs, lighting, water butts, printer cartridges, scissors, fencing, litter bins, animal bedding, pallets, clocks, tableware, soap dishes to name a few (those don’t include items made from paper). We don’t catch an awful lot of what we could be recycling – according to Richard Girling’s book “Rubbish”, the UK produces over 450, 000 tons of plastic bottles every year of which just 5% are recycled (approx. 22,500 tons). The remainder of this goes one of two places: needlessly to landfill, or to China/India. But where does that lucky 5% go?
Well, unfortunately, the bottles we carefully pick out may end up in exactly the same places. The telegraph reports “240,000 tons of paper, glass and plastic is either dumped or burned after being collected in green bins and bags by local council staff”. When council recycling practices were surveyed last year, large gaps were uncovered. In some areas, as many as one in eight items put out for recycling ended up being dumped. Paul Bettison, chairman of the Local Government Association Environment Board, points out that 240,000 tons of non-recycled recycling is only 1.6 per cent of the total collected, but it’s a big number and it doesn’t inspire confidence. If a third of us recycle, this is just the kind of story that may deter the other two thirds from starting.
But that’s not the end of it. Every council has targets to meet, and faces fines if they do not reduce the amount of waste they send to landfill. Sometimes the targets run ahead of the facilities available, and that leaves a choice to either miss the targets and pay the fine, or export the recycling for processing elsewhere. Research in Wales last year tracked bales of cardboard to Indonesia, glass to Brazil, plastic to China and cans to India. “It’s hardly the most sustainable policy and grossly counter-productive,” said Plaid Cymru minister Leanne Wood.
This would perhaps be understandable if our local recycling plants were overworked, but the trade in waste is motivated by profits, not sustainability ideals. Chinese recyclers pay well for our trash – £120 a ton, where UK recyclers can generally only offer £50 a ton. It’s an irresistable deal to the waste companies. “The Chinese put me out of business,” said one UK recycler. “Everyone has lost supplies to China. The local market is being starved of materials. Hundreds of brokers are buying up the plastic and shipping it out.”
In 2004, the Guardian reported that China was “running at 200,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish and 500,000 tonnes of paper and cardboard a year”. China received approximately a third of all the recycled plastic collected.
Again, this might be okay, if it could be proved that this was the most cost-effective and sustainable way of dealing with our waste. But Greenpeace in China takes a very different view, pointing out that standards are not the same as the UK. Waste is brought in mixed, and then sorted by hand by the poorest and most desperate immigrant labourers. The waste is ‘processed’, not necessarily recycled. Much of it is burned. Greenpeace’s Martin Baker puts it plainly: “I would say that Britain is dumping its rubbish in the name of recycling.”
Pro-recycling campaigners portray recycling as almost charitable. It’s something we’re all supposed to feel good about doing, but it’s a business like any other, and there’s a roaring trade going on behind our backs as our discarded bottles and cans become commodities in global marketplace.
It strikes me as rather dishonest that councils continue to play up recycling as a good cause when it is actually being dumped, burned or sent abroad. But before we lose all hope and abandon recycling altogether we should rethink a few things – it’s all very well being disappointed with our councils, but if we didn’t produce so much waste in the first place we wouldn’t encounter the problem. This is just a testament to the sheer amount of rubbish we produce. We produce more waste than we can recycle, so we can hardly complain when the recycling doesn’t happen.
So what can be done? We’re trying to recycle but now it turns out it just goes to landfill. Whats the point of it all?
This is what we suggest:
- Use less, make less waste. Again, buy local. Reuse the same bottle. i.e Buy from the market where items come unwrapped and you can take them home in a backpack.
- What you do have to buy, make sure it can be recycled. Reduce not only the amount you send to landfill but also what you recycle. Recycling is not an excuse for producing an unsustainable amount of junk.
- Write to your council to see what their practices are, and encourage them to process waste locally.
- Much of the recycling that is dumped in the UK is contaminated. Councils also dump waste and use contamination as an excuse. To avoid that happening, make sure you clean out bottles and tins, and sort recycling well.
- If you send your recyling mixed, avoid putting broken glass in the box. That may result in it being dumped too.
For more information, i would suggest reading the articles linked above, and Richard Girling’s book I mentioned, Rubbish. Jeremy has talked about it before and it definitely highlights how dirty our hands really are.
Here is an article on recycling in the US. Things are a little different across the pond.