The UK has had a wake-up call on plastics, in terms of the huge amount we consume and the much smaller amount that we recycle. There is an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic in the world, of which only 9% has been recycled. That leaves 6.6 billion tonnes of our plastic waste accumulating in landfill or litter, waiting 400 years or so to degrade.i UK recycling rates are higher – we recycle one third of recyclable plastic – but it’s still way off the mark.ii
Our waste and recycling systems have not been able to keep pace with this tremendous outpouring of waste and plastic that accompanies our modern, fast-paced British lives. The result: a complex network of over 300 different recycling systems across the UK.iii No wonder individuals are finding it hard to navigate.
We believe Knowledge is power. So we have detailed here 10 Recycling Myth Busters that we know are common areas of confusion. We hope this helps further unleash your recycling super-powers. If you can bust any more recycling myths, we’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
1. Recycling plastic takes the plastic problem away
Choosing to recycle plastic is definitely better than choosing not to. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this solves everything. Every time plastic is recycled its quality lessens so that often by the 2nd or 3rd round of recycling it requires ‘downcycling’ into something of a lesser value, for example, clothing or lumber.iv Plastic can be recycled more times by ‘upcycling’ with more virgin plastic added but you can see the challenge in that.v
What you can do
Focus more on Refuse, Reduce & Reuse before you get to Recycle. Given the limited life-span of even recycled plastic, we need to ensure we have less of it in our lives. Of course, for the necessary plastic in your life, we still encourage you to carry on being a super human recycling machine!
2. Biodegradable plastic will clean up our plastics problem
Something biodegradable should decompose back into its natural elements without causing harm. The problem is that we don’t have these conditions (50C and prolonged UV exposure) readily available either naturally or through our local recycling systems. Nor are these conditions present in our oceans if that’s where some of this plastic ashamedly ends up.
What you can do
Be wary of biodegradable plastics. It’s likely you can’t home compost it and finding a recycling route could prove hard work. Keep focus on limiting the plastic in your life by Refusing, Reducing & Reusing.
3. Dirty recycling is still valuable
There’s been lots of confusion and varied advice about whether packaging needs to be rinsed before recycling. Yes is the simple answer. Otherwise soiled packaging entering into the recycling system can contaminate other parts of the load and result in a batch or even entire load being sent to landfill or incineration. In England in 2015, 4% of all recycling was rejected – the equivalent of 417,000 Tonnes or 745 fully loaded Airbus A380 airplanes.vi
WHAT YOU CAN DO
We all want to make sure our recycling really does get recycled so it’s worth going the extra mile to rinse out your peanut butter or stir fry sauce jars. When it comes to something like a cheese-laden take-away pizza box you might have to admit defeat and save the rest of your recycling load by condemning it to the bin.
4. Paper is greener than plastic
Not on all fronts, so you have to have your wits about you on this one. Both paper and plastic have their drawbacks. Plastic is made from a non-renewable source, fossil fuel, and a liability for wildlife if littered but it is lightweight and compact so more energy efficient to transport. Paper comes from a renewable source, trees, and disintegrates quickly if littered but needs to be responsibly sourced and the manufacturing process of pulping is very energy intensive. As you can see, it’s complicated.
What you can do
When it comes to bags, go reusable every time. Then there’s no need to stress over the pros and cons of plastic versus paper. If you do have plastic bags, try and reuse them to give them at least a second life. Once redundant, plastic carrier bags can be taken to carrier bag collection points in the bigger supermarket stores for recycling. For paper bags, make sure they end up in your household recycling box.
5. Crisp packets, snack wrappers & food pouches are unrecyclable
Crisp packets, snack wrappers and food pouches cannot currently be collected as part of household doorstep recycling. It’s not that they’re unrecyclable but that their mix of materials make them tricky to recycle. For example, the insides of crisp packets may look like shiny foil but are in fact metalised plastic film. This is a big issue when 20 million crisp packets are produced everyday in the UK. vii
What you can do
Visit the TerraCycle website. This is a company founded with the purpose to ‘Eliminate the Idea of Waste by recycling the non-recyclable”. Simply use their search tool to see how they can help you recycle some of the most common ‘non-recyclables’. They have schemes running for food pouches and biscuit and snack wrappers, amongst other things. In December 2018, they will launch a crisp packet recycling programme with Walkers. Hurrah!
6. Ocean plastic pollution is a problem created elsewhere
More than a quarter of the 8 million metric tonnes of plastic pouring into our oceans every year is coming from just 10 rivers, 8 of them in Asia.viii In the UK, we cannot shy away from our contribution to this oceanic disaster. The UK has exported over 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste (two-thirds of the UK’s total waste plastic exports) to China and Hong Kong since 2012. This led to China setting staunch limitations on further imports from January 2018 in a campaign against ‘foreign garbage’. ix
Photo by Drew Coffman on Unsplash NB: Geography unknown
What you can do
If you are feeling particularly passionate (we hope you are!), then why not drop an email to your local MP asking for their point of view on your local recycling infrastructure and capabilities? We need to build a UK recycling system that is fit for purpose and reduce our reliance on exporting our waste to foreign countries who may or may not themselves be well equipped to manage our waste responsibly.
7. Non-recycled waste heads straight for landfill
Not so. More waste goes to incineration in the UK than landfill. In 2016/17, the UK landfilled 4 million tonnes of waste, incinerated 10 million and recycled or composted 11 million. Sadly, in London, the West Midlands and the North-East, we burn more than we recycle.x
Debates continue on the pros and cons of incineration versus landfill. Both processes can generate much needed renewable energy but carry serious pollution risks. One tonne of Waste-To-Energy (WTE) from incineration generates a similar amount of power to one third of a tonne of coal.xi 18 active landfill sites alone can provide enough domestic electricity to power Edinburgh.xii
What you can do
Regardless of the debate on landfill versus incineration, the winner has to be less stuff in the first place and more recycling of what we do consume. For the waste that does have to be landfilled or incinerated, let’s keep challenging to make sure the opportunity to turn waste into renewable energy is never missed.
8. UK recycling rates set to hit 50% target
Available stats for England suggest not. Overall household recycling has increased by just 0.7% in England in 5 years to 43.7% in 2016/17.xiii Scotland is further ahead of the game with recycling rates of 45.2% in 2016 and an annual increase of 1% but still off the pace to hit 2020 EU targets of 50%.xiv
By contrast, Wales & Northern Ireland offer us hope. By 2017, Wales was recycling 64% of its waste, an amazing annual increase of 4%. Only two countries in the world recycle more than Wales.xv Whoop, whoop! Good on you, Wales! Northern Ireland also offers a beacon of hope, hitting a 50% recycling rate in 2017 for the first time, with a similar increase of around 4%.xvi
What you can do
Wherever you are in the UK, keep up the fighting spirit. If you are in Wales or Northern Ireland, keep up the great work and share your wonders. Let’s hope you can smash the 70% ceiling next! If you are in Scotland or England, keep aiming high and sharing your knowledge and inspiration with others. The 2020 50% goal is still achievable if England and Scotland can match the 4% growth rates of Wales & Northern Ireland. Next stop is the EU goal of 65% recycling by 2030.xvii Bring it on!
9. Black plastic is unrecyclable
Black plastic is recyclable but mainstream UK recycling facilities can’t currently handle them. The recycling sensors can’t detect the pigments used black plastic and can’t therefore sort it. Greenpeace estimate that we use around 1.3 billion black plastic trays every year and most of them are ending up in landfill.xviii Recycling organisation WRAP has helped to develop an alternative pigment that can be detected and sorted but adoption will likely be slow. So it’s worth celebrating The Collective yoghurt company for being the first food manufacturer to adopt this new technology and step change their products’ recyclability.xix
What you can do
Keep your eyes peeled when shopping and when you see an option to ditch black plastic for an alternative, do it. Quorn, for example, committed in 2018 to no more black plastic, saving 297 tonnes of black plastic from landfill or incineration every year. Or get tasting yoghurt by The Collective!
Look out for stores where black plastic has been banned. Iceland has already moved many of its lines out of black plastic, Aldi has removed it from its fruit and veg aislexx and Waitrose has committed to doing so by the end of 2019.xxi
10. Recycling uses more energy than making new
Not the case. Extracting and processing raw materials like wood and oil to make usable materials like paper, plastic and metal takes a lot of energy. By comparison, less energy is required to take an existing material and recycle it. In 2014, over 89 million tonnes of waste recycled or composted in the U.S. provided enough energy to power 30 million homes.xxii
What you can do
Just another good reason for all of us to keep Recycling! For extra motivation, take a look at the iWARM Widget from the Environmental Protection Agency to see how long your household appliances can be powered by your recycling.xxiii
Finally, what seventh generation has committed to do
We’ve been working on this for some time...
We are proud to be able to say that all our packaging is widely recyclable and 100% Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR). We are thereby helping to encourage a healthier recycling system by buying and using the outputs of the recycling process. By using PCR we emit 80% less greenhouse gases compared to the use of virgin fossil fuel plastics.
More concentrated formulas have enabled us to reduce on packaging, transport weight and water usage. We launched our first concentrated laundry detergent over ten years ago and have kept innovating ever since.
Seventh Generation packaging features On-Pack Recycling Labels (OPRL), designed to give a consistent recycling message across the UK and make it easier for Brits to recycle more.
Recycling for the next Seventh Generation
It will take a gargantuan effort to grow UK recycling rates at the pace we require. But we are all fired up and ready to go. Wales & Northern Ireland have proved that the seemingly impossible is possible. Let’s do this. Let’s recycle more together for the next seven generations.
[i] Laura Parker / National Geographic (2017) Here’s how much plastic trash is littering the earth. Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/ (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[ii] Kate Lyons / The Guardian (2016) Only a third of UK consumers’ plastic packaging is recycled. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/21/only-a-third-of-uk-consumer-plastic-packaging-is-recycled (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[iii] Emily Gosden / The Telegraph (2016) ‘Absurd’ that UK has hundreds of different recycling systems, says minister. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/businessandecology/recycling/12172341/Myriad-of-UK-recycling-systems-is-absurd-says-minister.html (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[iv] Mina Sinai / Recycle Nation (2017) How Many Times Can Recyclables Be Recycled? Available at: https://recyclenation.com/2017/06/how-many-times-can-recyclables-be-recycled/ (Accessed: 14 November 2018)
[v] Sara Spary / Huffington Post (2018) How Many Times Can One Plastic Bottle Be Recycled? Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/how-many-times-can-one-plastic-bottle-be-recycled_uk_5bc9b98be4b0d38b58771df3 (Accessed: 14 November 2018)
[vi] Sarah Ingrams / Which (2017) Are you rubbish at recycling? Available at: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2017/05/are-you-rubbish-at-recycling/ (Accessed: 30 October 2018)
[vii] Connor Parker / HuffPost (2018) Why aren’t there recyclable crisp packets? Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/why-arent-there-recyclable-crisp-packets_uk_5bab6e4ce4b0f101d38442b8 (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[viii] Prachi Patel / Scientific American (2018) Stemming the Plastic Tide: 10 Rivers Contribute Most of the Plastic in the Oceans. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stemming-the-plastic-tide-10-rivers-contribute-most-of-the-plastic-in-the-oceans/ (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[ix] Sandra Laville / The Guardian (2017) Chinese ban on plastic waste imports could see UK pollution rise. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/07/chinese-ban-on-plastic-waste-imports-could-see-uk-pollution-rise (Accessed: 30 October 2018)
[x] Adam Vaughan / The Guardian (2018) Waste incineration set to overtake recycling in England, Greens warn. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jul/16/waste-incineration-set-overtake-recycling-england-greens-warn (Accessed: 25 October 2018)
[xi] Bruce Watson / The Guardian (2016) Can incineration and landfills save us from the recycling crisis? https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jun/14/green-waste-distribution-methods-recycling-plastic-oil-epa (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[xii] Viridor (no date) Landfill Gas Recovery. Available at: https://viridor.co.uk/our-operations/energy/landfill-gas-recovery/ (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[xiii] David Rhodes / BBC News (2018) Recycling rates fall for 14 million homes in England. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-43197454 (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[xiv] BBC News (2017) Rise in household waste being recycled in Scotland. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-41398075 (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[xv] Steffan Messenger / BBC News (2017) Wales meets recycling target four years early. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-41037531 (Accessed: 31 October 2018)
[xvi] Conor Macauley / BBC News (2017) NI homes ‘recycling half our rubbish’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-41769558 (Accessed 31 October 2018)
[xvii] Dominic Hogg / The Independent (2016) The dark truth behind Sweden’s ‘revolutionary’ recycling schemes. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sweden-recycling-rates-revolutionary-dark-truth-behind-uk-wales-incineration-a7471861.html (Accessed 1 November 2018)
[xviii] Miranda Larbi / Metro UK (2018) Gig you know that black plastic can’t be recycled? Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2018/06/10/know-black-plastic-cant-recycled-7619361/ (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[xix] Grocery Trade (2018) The Collective is the first FMCG brand to implement the revolutionary black pigment technology. Available at: https://grocerytrader.co.uk/the-collective-is-the-first-fmcg-brand-to-implement-the-revolutionary-black-pigment-technology/ (Accessed: 14 November 2018)
[xx] Business Green (2018) Aldi ditches black plastic trays in bid to boost recycling rates. Available at: https://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/3061379/aldi-ditches-black-plastic-trays-in-bid-to-boost-recycling-rates (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[xxi] Miranda Larbi / Metro UK (2018) Gig you know that black plastic can’t be recycled? Available at: https://metro.co.uk/2018/06/10/know-black-plastic-cant-recycled-7619361/ (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[xxii] American GeoSciences Institute (no date) How does recycling save energy? Available at: https://www.americangeosciences.org/critical-issues/faq/how-does-recycling-save-energy (Accessed: 1 November 2018)
[xxiii] United States Environmental Protection Agency (2016) Individual Waste Reduction Model. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/widgets/iwarm-skinny.html (Accessed 1 November 2018)