Bronagh Loughlin reports on the failings of the UK's recycling industry and why it must do better
Photo by Aleksandar Pasaric
Consumption rates in the UK are rapidly increasing as the population grows. In order to meet this demand, we are using more natural resources and producing more goods than ever before. Despite our best efforts and the wish that everything we throw away could be recycled and reused, a lot of what we intend to be recycled is still finding itself in landfill sites, only to be incinerated.
The sad reality is that the quantity of items that actually go to recycling is far below what we once thought. In 2016, the UK generated roughly 41.1 million tonnes of commercial and industrial (C&I) waste. Of that, 33.1 million tonnes, about four-fifths came from England. C&I waste generation in England in 2017 was around 36.1 million tonnes and in 2018, 37.2 million tonnes. In 2016, the UK generated 221.0 million tonnes of total waste, with England being responsible for around 85% of the UK total.
How Much is Really Recycled?
In 2017, recycling rates for UK household waste was 45.7%, a minor increase on the previous year. The most common recyclable materials were cardboard and paper at 79%, metal at 71.3% and glass at 67.6%. After recycling, the most common destination for remaining rubbish was landfill: 24% of waste was sent there in 2016.
Despite efforts to boost Britain’s sustainability, the amount of waste that is sent for incineration is increasing. In 2017, 10.1 million tonnes of waste were sent for incineration and in 2018, 10.8 million tonnes. According to a 2017 research paper, out of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastics produced globally, only 9% is actually recycled.
So, what happens with the rest and why is it not being recycled? Some of this comes down to human error – many people are not educated about what items go in which bins and the kinds of condition they need to be in to be accepted for recycling. Waste segregation is a global issue and certainly contributes to the problem.
Why Is It Not Getting Recycled?
The waste management system in the UK has certain inadequacies at virtually every point in the recycling process. For example, The First Mile, a recycling facility in London, receives tonnes of recycling each year. However, around 60% of the recycling they receive is forwarded on to mixed recovery facilities (MRFs). Here, it is likely that more waste will be siphoned off and consequently not recycled properly.
This isn’t uncommon – if protocols are not followed or systems aren’t watertight, then recyclable waste will fall through the gaps. One facet of this is the fact that the UK is in the habit of outsourcing its recycling to other nations. A National Audit Office report discovered that more than half of the packaging that is designated as recycled is actually sent abroad for processing, without the guarantee that it will be recycled rather than placed in landfills or incinerated.
The UK exported around 611,000 tonnes of recovered plastic packaging to other nations before the end of 2018 in order to reduce costs; in fact, analysis suggests that we send roughly two-thirds of plastic waste overseas to be recycled. A Friends of the Earth report has also highlighted that large quantities of plastic were burnt at a paper mill in Indonesia because it has been labelled incorrectly as paper by British sorting machines.
Ensuring that you recycle as much of the rubbish you generate as possible is one of the best ways to adopt a sustainable lifestyle in your everyday life, so don’t let this dishearten you. Nevertheless, it’s important that we hold waste companies accountable for how they ensure their practices are as eco-friendly as they need to be in order to minimise the impact our waste has on the planet.
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