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Waste and Recycling: What happens?

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

The UK reportedly produces more than 222 million tonnes of waste per year, with around 31 million tonnes being household waste. Of this household waste only around 45% of it is recycled, quite a low figure when you consider the vast amount of recycling options available today. What is more worrying is that we do not truly know if all this waste is even being recycled, or at least recycled properly and efficiently. The government claims that almost half of the UK’s plastic packaging gets recycled, but investigations have proven this to be untrue. Thousands of tonnes of our household plastic packaging put out for recycling, as well as other kinds of plastic waste ends up in waste incinerators in the UK.

Furthermore, large quantities of the UK's waste, household and industrial is being shipped overseas to be dealt with, in some cases illegally. Legal or not we do not know what happens to this waste when it reaches its destination. What is happening to our waste, where is it going and what should the UK be doing to recycle better?

First, to understand the situation we must ask exactly how much waste the UK produces and whether under the current waste management system it can be properly dealt with. The short answer is no, the UK cannot deal with the vast amounts of waste industry and households create, not sustainably anyway. Despite the majority of the population following recycling guidance each week and sorting waste, plastic from paper, paper from glass, etc. in the understanding that these items will then be dealt with accordingly, this is not always the case. Although glass is nearly always recyclable only 50% of UK glass gets recycled, a mere 27% of batteries are recycled and up to 50% of all food waste could be composted. As much as 80% of all things thrown away in the UK could be recycled but undoubtedly the biggest issue facing the countries waste management is plastic recycling. We generate around 5 million tonnes of plastic each year in the UK yet apparently, we only recycle 45% of that, even that figure is contentious as we do not know how much of what is said to be recycled is actually recycled. This is particularly worrying as out of any of the waste we throw away plastic is the most damaging to our planet, many plastics are toxic and can sit taking hundreds of years to decompose leeching toxins and microplastics out in the process. Plastic waste can end up in land habitats and oceans where it causes harm to animals and ecosystems. It can be incinerated, polluting the atmosphere with toxic fumes and greenhouse gasses.

So how is this happening and why is this happening? According to a Greenpeace investigation out of all the plastic waste that is not recycled in the UK over half the government claims is recycled is sent abroad, most of it going to countries with very low recycling rates and a serious problem with plastic waste being dumped or burned illegally. The rest is incinerated here in the UK, a process which has been on the rise in recent years. Whilst the government claims all of this exported waste is recycled once it reaches its destination there is no proof of this and no one checks whether this is the case. Looking back a few years, the majority of the UK’s plastic waste exported was sent to China, until 2018 when China announced it would no longer accept plastic waste that was not at least 95.5% pure due to concerns about contamination and pollution. A BBC analysis found that in the year 2018 the UK exported around 611,000 tonnes of plastic packaging abroad. Since China’s ban on impure plastic waste imports the UK has looked elsewhere, currently more than half of the exported waste now goes to Malaysia and Turkey. Greenpeace investigators have found British plastic dumped by the side of the road, abandoned in illegal dumps, or even set on fire in Turkey and Malaysia. The investigation also found that mountains of non-plastic waste such as food and metal either sitting in landfills or burnt. Another issue that has arose since China’s import limitations is that now there has been an increase in waste incineration in the UK, due to not being able to export as much waste. The official figures show the amount of waste sent for incineration has been increasing, up from 10.1 to 10.8 million tonnes in 2017-18.

Clearly this is an issue in need of a solution, the UK should look at other nations waste management models and towards innovation in recycling science and technology to tackle the problem. In Sweden their recycling rates are so good that they are importing waste to be recycled there. Having reached a state of nearly zero-waste through recycling an estimated 99% of waste, they imported almost 2.3 million tonnes in 2016 and were paid to do so. Clearly not only is there environmental incentives but also financial. A fairly recent scientific development that should be considered is the discovery of plastic eating enzymes, they were made by researchers at the Centre for Enzyme Innovation in the UK and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. They break down a type of common plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The French company Carbios is also working to develop plastic-eating enzymes, aiming to utilise them in "industrial-scale recycling within five years. Another new option is Hydrothermal Plastic Recycling Solution, an advanced recycling process designed to tackle plastic that cannot currently be recycled. The first plant to use the technology has begun construction in Teesside, UK, to be operational in 2022 and able to process 80,000 tonnes of plastic waste per year. Hopefully these ideas and technologies will be fully utilised by the UK and other nations with similarly poor recycling rates, plastic waste needs to be minimised and minimised rapidly.


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