We, as a country, are obsessed by the recycling message in the UK and rightly so. But are we getting it all wrong when it comes to our approach? And are we being tough enough on companies that aren’t proactive when it comes to setting an example? They are, after all, the origin of the problem.
Many of us diligently put our waste into the right bins every week, thinking we’re doing our bit. But where does all that recycling actually go and how does it get back into the system as new products? In the summer of 2018 we were warned that a lot of it wasn’t staying in the country at all. In fact, China stopped accepting our recyclable plastic waste over a year ago and since then plastic piles have slowly begun to build up because we don’t know what to do with it. That isn’t recycling. That’s just passing the buck. Countryfile (BBC1 13th January) has highlighted the disturbing rising plastic mountain here in the UK since China’s ban. We are in serious trouble.
A survey by the Local Government Association (LGA) revealed
nearly half of councils who responded (52) say China’s ban
is having a significant impact on their ability to collect
and recycle plastic, due to rising costs. Fourteen councils
across the country say their recycling costs have increased
by an average of half a million pounds a year, in part
because of rising processing charges per tonne. (source)
The problem is, that for all our recycling commitments here in the UK, we don’t actually recycle that much. If you want a general overview of this, check out this episode from the podcast ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’. This recording also gives you some idea of the environmental effects our apparently kind alternatives such as the production of almonds and soy, for the trend in milk alternatives, is having on the planet. With all our best intentions, we may not be making the problem any better.
The information, in general, is incredibly difficult to find and is frustratingly vague when you do find it. It seems that we pass a lot of it to other people to do our dirty work for us, which is not really the point of a good recycling scheme. It has to be self sufficient, especially if you expect your own people to continue to produce more waste. Instead of spending our money on paying someone else to take it, we need to be reaping the profits from that at ground level, and that means turning recycling into a UK based industry for UK businesses.
In part, our laziness at doing this is because we have relied on other countries to take our rubbish so we haven’t had a need to put the infrustructure into place. There is absolutely no excuse for that given how long recycling has been a trend here. China was never going to be a bottomless pit for our plastic and it is high time we really took responsibility for our own waste issues. You and Yours on BBC Radio 4 on 7th January gave a little insight into how things currently stand and it’s not particularly positive news.
There are many other contributors to our rising plastic mountain and we are simply not doing enough to find alternative methods to keep the need for landfill down. We are also not educating customers enough on how to use their recycling bins properly, or being strict enough with retailers such as supermarkets in our bid to stop single use plastics (predominantly shrink wrap and PET) from entering the system. We are also not stopping companies from using excessive amounts of packaging. The rise in online shopping is a major contributor to this problem, and our obsession with branded coffee shops and bottled water is out of control. Reusable cups and bottles may be promoted but they are not being used across the board.
Just this month we have increased the cost of a plastic bag to 10p each, but the truth is there is no excuse for even producing plastic bags in the UK anymore. I haven’t picked one up in a supermarket for at least three years. I have a stash of bags for life which are indispensible, not just for shopping but for a whole host of other transportation solutions. I pack up shoes and fabrics in them for photoshoots.
And yet you still see people buying a plastic bag because they are just too lazy to bring a reusable one or can’t be bothered to carry a bottle of milk by the handle. This has to change. At the very least, these bags need to be made of a biodegradable material so they can go into compostable waste in the same way as green caddy bin liners. The simple answer of course, is not to supply plastic bags at check outs. Customers will soon organise themselves when they find there is consistently nothing to carry their shopping home in. It seems we still need training in recycle and basic upcycle. This small step will make a huge difference to our waste problems and will only inconvenience the laziest of shoppers.
When I shop in Morrisons I can buy nearly all of my veg and fruit purchases loose. It’s one reason I have switched allegiance to them. They are now top in the league table for recyclable packaging. So why is it that if I go into my local Tesco’s supermarket I am hard pushed to find anything that isn’t sealed in one use plastic and polstyrene trays?
Wales is currently in the lead for its recycling commitments and targets. Its energy knows no bounds. But it has the same problem as the rest of us – where the recycling goes. Its zero waste stores where you can literally buy a teaspoon of a single ingredient for a recipe, are a stroke of genius and a hark back to the days of ‘waste not, want not’ when you only bought what you knew you would use.
1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted by the food industry
every year in the UK. 8.4 million people in the UK are
struggling to afford to eat. This is equivalent to the
entire population of London. (source)
Supermarkets have encouraged us to buy things in bulk that we don’t need or cannot possibly eat before they have passed their usable quality. The rise of multi-buys and 2-4-1 offers has been a big contributor to wasted food at shameful levels, given how we complain about the rising cost of living. And supermarkets battle with huge unbought overstock levels every day. You can practically live on reduced offers in supermarkets these days. There is no excuse for this excessive overstocking except profit and greed and consumers insatiable demand for everything on their doorstep with no understanding of the problems that can cause.
The retail industry trained the consumer to expect a certain standard. Now they can retrain them to start entertaining a new standard.