Updated: Aug 10, 2021
Over the last few years, recycling has been advertised as the most accessible way consumers can aid the environment. Last year saw 89% of Brits recycle their waste regularly. Over the years, we seem to have settled in this system, appeasing our conscience that ‘we’ve done our part’. But, we hate to break it to you, it’s not enough.
The out-of-sight-out-of-mind mindset blinds us to what becomes of our waste – our efforts stopping at the recycling bin. Does the now well-established process of recycling actually work? Jokes on you, not quite.
Whilst consumers are not blameless, the recycling industry is intricate. 44% of people are confused over what can and can’t be recycled, and the rules differing from city to city only make it more puzzling. Many people don’t even have access to adequate recycling facilities.
In July 2020, Marks & Spencer and 19 other retailers in the UK signed the British Retail Consortium’s (BRC) Better Retailing Climate initiative. The BRC is “pushing for the retail sector to send less than 1% of their waste to landfill by 2020”. This was a good start, but we still see foods - from bananas to broccoli - unnecessarily wrapped up in single-use plastics.
The uncertainty on what can and can’t be recycled is again highlighted with the helpful ‘check with your local council’ sign. It increases the effort that goes into recycling. Batches of recycling waste can be ruined or ‘contaminated’ by food waste or a low-quality plastic being present in the mix.
Due to contamination concerns in 2018, it’s clear why China stopped buying disposable plastic waste. Brits were recycling oily takeaway boxes, half-full butter containers, and unfinished yogurts thinking they were following the rules to the letter. And this is due to a total ambiguity over what can and cannot be recycled. Recycling needs to be made as simple and streamlined as possible. Exporting waste abroad is a whole other problem we have to face. The EU banned such acts, but the UK’s laws are less strict - we continue to send waste to Malaysia.
The UK Statistics on Waste published in March 2020 reflects on the journey of our waste up until 2018: the UK sent 7.2 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) to landfills. Municipal waste includes waste from households, retails, restaurants, caterers, as well as parks and gardens. And the consequences on the environment are far from trivial. Rubbish is slow - very slow - to break down and cause toxins to leach into the ground, and greenhouse gases to find their way into the atmosphere.
In 2008, the UK agreed in the Climate Change Act that the ‘net UK carbon accounts for the year 2050 [would be] at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline’. We are now halfway there, as in 2020 we’ve gone 51% below the 1990 levels. But until we reach this carbon-neutral goal, there are things we can do, alternative routes to take. Recycling has been the go-to solution for too long, comforting us in a false sense of security.
The principle ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ is an effective replacement. Our long-time partner Veolia, a waste management company, gives advice on where to start. And recycling should be a last resort in waste management. First, we should reduce how much we buy and eat that is covered in plastic, and second, reuse whatever we can.
Keep an eye out for the next article - we’ll introduce ways to start reducing and reusing, step by step, within your home.