Britain is failing to recycle waste. Photo: Veolia

The recycling myth

Consumer demand shows we want to be better at recycling. We worry about plastic and anguish over what goes in which bin. But how effective is it?
December 12, 2018

Once a year the UK has an Open House day where all sorts of places—from Downing Street to farms, mines and schools—open their doors to the public. One dismal rainy Saturday last autumn, I went along to the open house at the Veolia recycling sorting depot in Southwark. I walked 15 minutes from the bus stop through low red brick estates, across the Old Kent Road, to an industrial area with an old gas works and a bus depot. The Veolia recycling facility was built in 2012 and is housed in big corrugated sheds. I wasn’t expecting it to be a popular destination, but when I arrived I was told there was a two hour wait for a tour.

“I am on assignment,” I told the couple huddling under an umbrella behind me in the queue, “what’s your excuse for waiting in the rain to look at a load of rubbish?” Andy Readman, it turned out, was a tech strategist; his partner, Laura McGuinness, worked for a management consultant. They lived in Bermondsey and worked in the City. Laura laughed. “I think it’s a privilege to be able to look around. I want to know what happens to our recycling.” A man in steamed-up glasses in front of us admits ruefully, “it’s my partner who is very excited about recycling,” but the truth is it’s something we pretty well all do these days. Many of us—like Laura—have wondered at some point about where it all goes.

The world is being smothered by our rubbish. Islands of plastic travel the oceans. Tides wash a daily scrim of flotsam onto our beaches. The sight of plastic bags blown by the wind caught in trees is as familiar in Beijing as it is in Birmingham. It’s been unsightly for years, but the issue of plastic waste shot to prominence after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II late in 2017, with its terrible footage of wildlife entangled in our refuse.

Not long afterwards, by coincidence and for its own reasons, China announced it was banning imports of any recyclables—including plastics. That closed off what had become a major escape route for British waste. Recycling exporters scrambled to send it elsewhere: to Malaysia, to Vietnam, to Thailand and to Poland. Within a few months other Asian countries had also imposed limits on the quantity of plastic waste they would import from abroad.

At the same time as Britain was surer than ever that “something must be done,” it seemed clueless about how to do it. Over the decades, recycling has gradually become the one practical contribution to greater sustainability that most of us have been prepared to carry out. But what happens now if the way that we are doing it has itself become unsustainable?

What difference does it make if I use a “bag for life” and conscientiously buy slippers made from recycled car tyres? Doesn’t the effort and energy required to process and repurpose, transport and resell all that recycled stuff kinda—well—cancel out the green gesturing? Has the recycling industry itself become a vested interest, liable to distract us from the pressing need to reduce the waste we generate in the first place? Have we forgotten about the greener alternative of simply reusing things, as we used to do with the glass pints of milk delivered to our doorstep? And while we’re at it: why are we carefully sorting out our glittery wrapping paper from our ready meal trays if the whole lot just gets shipped off to some unknown end in Asia anyway?

Haze against the machine

After more than an hour of waiting, damp and cold, I bought a cappuccino from a coffee van. I asked one of the Veolia staff where I should throw away the cup and lid. “What do you think?” she asked, gently schoolmistress-like. I said I had no idea. She explained the cup was laminated and therefore a mixed material. “I’m afraid it has to go into the general waste bin. The lid however, can be recycled, so that goes in the green bin.”A recent BBC poll confirmed that most people in Britain do regularly recycle, but also revealed that half of us argue about what type of packaging should go in the recycling bin. Andy admitted, “Yeah, Laura and I are pretty much the same. I never know what to do with tin foil.” That’s not surprising. Throughout the UK there are 39 different sets of rules for what plastics can be put in the recycling bin. In Manchester a yoghurt pot can, in Reading it can’t.

She went away and I stood in front of the bank of rubbish bins and second guessed: the plastic lid had milk foam clinging to it and we had been told at the orientation that recycling should be clean and dry. Greasy pizza boxes or bottles still sticky with sauce can’t be recycled because the organic material can rot and contaminate whole bales of recyclable material in transit.

Andy had bought a smoothie in a plastic container made from a plant-based polymer. Laura explained how the blender had been rigged up to a bicycle, so pedal-power had whizzed up the smoothie—a green touch she was pleased with—but we wondered how biodegradable the bioplastic was. “I’m tempted to take this home and see how long it takes to compost,” said Andy. (When I subsequently looked into this I found that plant plastics need an industrial anaerobic composter to break down; chucking it on your garden heap doesn’t do it. A month after our day out, I followed up with Andy who told me the plastic smoothie cup was sitting unchanged on his compost pile).

Finally, it was our turn and we were issued with hi-vis vests, hard hats and earphones. Inside the two-storey industrial shed a great network of conveyor belts rumbled up and down and at every angle. The air thrummed and the metal walkways vibrated. The atmosphere was grey, the air a warm fug, thick with the sweetish tang of rotten garbage and heavy with particulate that scratched the back of my throat. Rubbish streamed past: flayed and splayed into shreds of multicoloured trash, the detritus of our daily throw-away consumption: yellow Selfridges bag, red OXO carton, Evian bottle, green six-pack Heineken sleeve, orange Jacobs cream cracker packet, many many copies of the Daily Mail. Crushed aluminium drinks cans gleamed metallic and there was a dull glitter, underneath it all, of smashed glass. The continual flow was mesmerising. We watched, fascinated, as a series of blunt blades tossed garbage into the air, so that glass shards could fall through. We were told that this machine stops up to six times a day because textiles and plastic film get wrapped around the blades. Other machines had magnets to sort steel cans from aluminium or blowers that whooshed papers into separate chutes. None was foolproof. Dotted about were sorting cabins where workers stood either side of the conveyor belts, picking through the rubbish with their hands.

The recycling got sorted into glass, steel and ferrous metals, aluminium cans and non-ferrous, mixed paper, cardboard, Tetrapak and plastic film, which was mostly carrier bags. Other types of plastic were baled up together, to be taken to other recycling plants, some owned by Veolia, or sent abroad to be processed into a reusable form that can be sold to manufacturers to make packaging. At least that’s the idea. The actualities and practicalities are a bit more complicated.

At the end of the tour the manager of the plant was on hand to answer questions. There were plenty. No, crisp packets were not recyclable, “they’re a different polymer,” he explained. They would go to “residue” the industry’s euphemism for waste that can’t be recycled. “Then where does the ‘residue’ go?” asked one women. The manager said landfill was a last resort and very little was sent there. It costs a waste management company £100 a tonne to put stuff in a landfill site in the UK. (£88 of this is tax, levied to encourage compliance with the EU’s Landfill Directive.) “What can we do with textiles and light bulbs?” one woman asked. Textiles should more properly be taken to charity shops, fluorescent light bulbs should go directly to a facility that could recycle them. “What about aluminium foil?” asked someone else. The manager hemmed. “Well,” he said, “technically we can’t recycle it, and it should be put in general waste.”

“What about shredded paper?” asked a man, “because I’ve heard that you shouldn’t put it in the recycling.” The manager explained that paper shredded with a diamond cutter into confetti was too small to be recycled because it fell through the machine along with crushed glass, but that paper shredded into strips was often balled up in a wad that usually managed to find its way in with the other paper. “What about plastic food trays?” “What about the plastic film on top?” “Can they both be recycled or only separately or neither?” The manager grimaced again. “Yes… and no,” he said.

It turns out that nearly all packaging is theoretically recyclable, but whether it is or not depends mainly on whether there is a facility to sort it, a plant to process it and a customer to buy the end product. Black plastic for example, generally isn’t recycled because the optical sorting machines can’t “see” it against the black conveyor belts. Plastic milk bottles, on the other hand almost always are because you can bank on the demand: the processed pellets are sold straight back to the milk bottle manufactures to make new ones. I began to understand that the complications of sorting rubbish was only the beginning of the story of the recycling industry.

The dustbin of geography

Each local authority negotiates its own separate contract with a waste management company: there are no national standards. Swindon council, for example, recently announced it wasn’t going to recycle plastics anymore, basically because they couldn’t figure out a cost effective way of separating them out.The average British household throws away a tonne of rubbish a year. Compared to much of the rest of Europe, the UK was late to recycling, but after slow beginnings, it has been playing catch-up. Britain now recycles 44 per cent of its household waste. The EU target is—or was, in the rear view mirror of Brexit—to increase this to 50 per cent by 2020. But all this is being done by a rather ad hoc improvised system involving local government, central government, the EU, waste management companies, recycling merchants, brokers and exporters.

The economics of collection and recovery are often squeezed by the expense of sorting. Most metal, paper and card has a positive recycle value, whereas glass needs a lot of energy to recycle and so has a value close to zero. Inevitably, though, any discussion about recycling turns to plastics, and plastics are complicated. The multitude of polymers used in packaging, some of which are welded together into one item, plus the paucity of labelling, mean that it’s difficult to sort them.

Approximately one-third of the tonnage of plastic waste is collected for recycling, while the remaining two-thirds became residual waste. Why so much? For one thing, about half of consumer plastic waste is in the form of plastic bottles. Because these are often used “on the go” more than half are thrown away in general waste bins on the street and don’t make it into the recycling stream. This is a frustrating position for the recyclers because the plastic bottles have a positive recycle value. In Germany and Switzerland, where there are deposit and return schemes, closer to 95 per cent of plastic bottles are recycled.

One consequence of Britain failing to recycle as much as it ought to at home, is that much of the waste ends up going abroad. Emma Priestland from Friends of the Earth estimated that until recently, probably 50 per cent of UK plastic waste was exported; most of it going to China. Facilities at the other end were, she says, often “very low tech, people sorting through for any of the more valuable bits.” But the high contamination rates of British plastic waste (essentially lots of other material including rotting food waste mixed in) meant it was often regarded as low grade and uneconomic even in the developing world. As Simon Ellin, the CEO of the Recycling Association, put it, Britain’s low-quality, badly sorted recycling has often been seen as “waste rather than a commodity.” The end result Priestland said, was that “most of [the rubbish] is probably burnt in facilities which pollute and are inevitably situated near to poor areas.”

After China announced its ban last year, recycling exporters struggled to find countries willing to take our rubbish. Reports of a Polish “rubbish mafia” illegally burning British plastic recycling in their country, prompted Warsaw to restrict recycling imports. Some British waste appears to have been shipped to Turkey, which is listed among the 20 worst countries for recycling by Science magazine. Increasingly where it’s going is unclear and probably illegal. In October, the Guardian reported that the Environment Agency had set up a taskforce to investigate fraud by UK exporters claiming to have exported more tonnage of recycling waste than they actually had and routing illegal shipments to Asia via the Netherlands. Six UK firms had their export licenses rescinded.

For general waste, the alternatives to recycling are landfill or burning. Decomposing rubbish gives off methane and carbon dioxide, both powerful greenhouse gasses—landfills are considered the last resort. Incinerators come with their own euphemism—energy recapture—and they generate power, but efficiency is 25 per cent compared to 55 per cent for new gas-fired power stations. The Veolia incinerator at Deptford for example, heats 2,600 houses in Southwark.

Incineration levels in the UK have been rising and a Green Party report warns that if current trends continue, within a year, more rubbish in the UK will be burnt by local councils than recycled. On balance, judges Priestland from Friends of the Earth, there’s no way that burning plastics is a good idea. “There’s the issue of air pollution—although most incinerators can now scrub this—but it leaves a residue of toxic ash which still needs to be disposed off somehow.” She says that even burying plastics in a well-managed landfill is preferable. And it is not only the green fringe in politics that is worried. Thérèse Coffey was an environment minister in the Conservative government before she resigned due to ill health in May. When still in office, she told the Commons: “in environmental terms, it is generally better to bury plastic than to burn it.”

Hope hidden in the heap

Something called an “extended producer responsibility” requires manufacturers to shoulder a certain amount of the cost—currently around 10 per cent—of the collection and processing of their product at its “end life.” “Packaging Recovery Notes” are issued by reprocessors when they have recovered and recycled a tonne of packaging material, which they can buy as a way of discharging their duty. But the plot thickens. In practice, the certificates are often sold and brokered through a secondary market of more than 50 private for-profit entities: exporters, dealers and waste management companies. Post-Blue-Planet II Britain might be in a collective mood to get a grip on its plastic waste, but that doesn’t mean it has figured out how to do so. We are still exporting and burning too much and recycling too little. Economics aside, the real reason for this imbalance is because of the way the recycling market is structured.

According to Dominic Hogg, chairman of Eunomia, a recycling consulting firm that advises waste management companies and local authorities, this “hideously complicated” system “has become a tradable credit scheme.” It does nothing to encourage manufacturers to design packaging with its end-use in mind, and instead rewards the export of rubbish.

Michael Gove, the environment secretary, got plenty of coverage when he handed out reusable coffee cups to his cabinet colleagues and the government has been happy to promote schemes to get rid of straws and carrier bags. But as Richard Kirkman, the chief technology and innovation officer for Veolia in the UK and Ireland, told me, the items that have got a lot of press “actually represent a very small proportion of the total plastic packaging.” Gove’s conference speech made little mention of recycling although a comprehensive new “Waste and Resources” strategy was expected by the end of the year. The recycling industry is waiting with its fingers crossed, hoping that the “extended producer responsibility” will be more fully extended to cover between 80 and 100 per cent of the cost of recycling packaging, as it is in other European countries like Germany, rather than leaving much of the burden—as now—with local authorities. If producers were made more fully responsible for the cost, they would pay more attention to the design of the packaging and its recyclability. A standardised range of plastic polymers, properly labelled for easier sorting, is key.

In the meantime, the impetus is coming more from the bottom up—consumer pressure—than any top-down policy. Attenborough standing in front of surf heaving with plastic rubbish is a powerful moral imperative. Brands, supermarkets, environmental groups and local authorities have already come together to sign up to “the Plastics Pact,” which aims to set a few industry norms and best practices. Simon Ellin, of the Recycling Association, told me supermarkets were now engaging with him about their future packaging.

Even so, Kirkman of Veolia doesn’t think we are going to get to less packaging overall anytime soon. As the economy and population grows, more stuff gets produced, bought, unwrapped, eaten and thrown away. And if we tried to do without it, he adds, there would be other consequences because “packaging is there to protect the product.” Without it, a lot of food would be wasted, which has its own environmental consequences. “There is this huge drive to kill plastic, but if you do, you would just have to replace it. The problem with plastics is not the material. The first plastic, celluloid, was invented to replace elephant tusk in billiard balls. It was a solution for a problem. Of course we have to stop dumping plastics in the oceans, but recycling is about moving forward instead of backwards.”

There is a dream of a circular economy where all waste is melted down and reused. Kirkman cited, as an example, a new glass recycling plant Veolia is building in St Helens which will supply Knauf, one of the world’s largest insulation manufactures. New sorting technologies—either barcoding every product with a recycle tag, or intelligent visualisation computers that can tell a crushed Orangina bottle from a crumpled shampoo bottle—are beginning to emerge.

But as Hogg of Eunomia pointed out, “ultimately the revenue from selling recycled materials is not—for the foreseeable future—going to cover the cost of collection and disposal.” The idea that rubbish is worth something doesn’t work in Britain, where labour and transportation costs are high. The idea that it might be worth something to poor Asian countries, where waste pickers will sort trash, has also now ground to a halt.

Priestland of Friends of the Earth insists that “long term we need to reduce our plastic use. We can’t recycle our way out of this problem.” Even the greenwashed gleam of polymers made from plants that are compostable is not sustainable when you remember that would need more plants and growing more plants means cutting down more forests.

But things can—and should—improve. Already Scotland and Wales have far higher recycling rates than England because of government action. A more coherent national policy is urgently needed. In the meantime, don’t underestimate the power of your own individual contribution. Public pressure is already having an effect on manufacturers and retailers, and every time you stop and figure out which bottle gets chucked into which bin, you are—as I saw at Veolia—helping with the sorting which has a huge bearing on how much does or doesn’t end up being recycled.

When I wrote to Andy and Laura to say thank you for their company while standing two hours in the cold drizzle at the recycling depot, their enthusiasm reminded me that we all have a part to play and that shrugging our shoulders with bewilderment—I have often been guilty of that—is a cop-out. “I thought you also might be interested to know that we won the recycling quiz that we entered while you were getting your coffee!” Andy wrote back. “The prize was a reusable collapsible cup which I’m now proudly using around Canary Wharf.”