Does recycling save the planet?

When it comes to finding solutions to the plastic crisis, there’s often a term you’ll hear thrown about – recycling. Governments are widely pushing for the implementation of deposit return systems to recycle our plastic bottles, and corporations producing plastic often spout the recyclability of their products.
But, like any ‘solution’ to the plastic crisis, recycling is not the knight in shining armour it is sometimes made out to be. There are some fundamental flaws to recycling, particularly here in UK. Let’s break down some of the key reason why recycling can never be the only solution to our plastic waste problem.
To start, let’s look at… well, the start of the recycling process. In England, we have a pretty disjointed and localised recycling system, where different local authorities collect and deal with waste in different ways. This means that a plastic item that you could put in the recycling bin in one county could possibly not be recycled in the same way in another. This ends up being pretty confusing for us consumers when we come around to recycling our waste, which doesn’t help with keeping recycling rates high in the first place.
The nature of plastic waste doesn’t help the situation. Around half of the plastic we produce is single-use – often, we see it in the form of thin, flimsy packaging. This packaging (such as plastic bags) is too low grade to be recycled, as it can get tangled in machinery, and is often contaminated with food which prevents it from being able to be recycled in the first place. There is also less of a demand for low quality plastics by the companies that deal with the waste once it’s been sorted, as it is hard to re-purpose into other items and is often not economically viable to do so.
And with regards to high quality plastics like plastic bottles? It often comes down to just that – money.
When we put a plastic bottle in the recycling bin, we often think it’ll be made into a brand new plastic bottle – it’s what the ‘fully recyclable!’ labels we often see on their packaging lead us to think. In reality, they’re often downcycled into items of less worth than before, such as carpets or fleeces, which brings along a whole other array of issues in the form of microplastic and microfibre pollution. It also means that since this plastic isn’t being made back into the same products, millions more plastic items need to be made just to replace those used the day before. And since single-use plastic is predominantly petroleum based, it also means that more fossil fuels are required to produce new plastics.
But why is this? The issues we’ve discussed so far certainly don’t help with getting recycled plastic back to the manufacturers for use in new products, but it also comes down to the cost and aesthetics of products too. A recycled plastic bottle doesn’t have that perfectly clear appearance that manufacturers of items like bottled water are going for, and it’s also cheaper to produce new plastic than use recycled material. Corporations like Coca Cola have also been reported to make more money from producing new plastic bottles than the drinks themselves! Most corporations don’t have the financial incentive to transition from new plastic to recycled, and so are unlikely to do so in the near future unless pushed by government legislation and regulations.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any companies taking these steps - Evian are aiming to make all of its plastic bottles from 100% recycled plastic by 2025. Some companies, such as CanOWater, are also replacing plastic bottles with aluminium cans which are infinitely recyclable. But, whilst these are big steps in the right direction, they need to be adopted by corporations across the board in order to make a significant difference, and are only tackling one problem in the mess of UK recycling.
Really, we need to stop looking to recycling as the spade with which we’ll dig ourselves out of the immense hole that is the plastic waste crisis, when in reality we might just end up digging deeper. The current rate at which we’re consuming materials is unsustainable, regardless of whether we’re using plastic, glass or tetrapack. The only way that recycling will come close to being a solution to plastic pollution is when it closed loop, and accompanied by better waste infrastructure, improved packaging design, and perhaps most importantly, a reduction in the amount of single-use plastic we use in the first place.
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