Wanted: Dump site

After a week, we are slow­ly get­ting used to plas­tic-free shop­ping. It does take more effort, but so far we haven’t run into any prob­lems. The chal­lenge also gave us the push we need­ed to get a veg­etable box deliv­ered from a local organ­ic farm. They work with plas­tic, but give the option to order a box with­out plastic.

But why would we want to ban plas­tic pack­ag­ing from our lives — it’s all being recy­cled, isn’t it? Today, I take a look at some fig­ures and the lat­est news about the demand for recy­cled plastic.

Most plastic stays with garbage

The chart below comes from a report from the Euro­pean plas­tic man­u­fac­tur­ers. Accord­ing to them, one third of plas­tic waste was recy­cled in Europe in 2016. The rest of the plas­tic was not col­lect­ed sep­a­rate­ly. Togeth­er with gen­er­al waste, it was incin­er­at­ed (blue) or went to land­fill (red). The Nether­lands has tight restric­tions on land­fill, but the UK still has a lot of it. This graph only looks at plas­tic in the col­lect­ed waste, so lit­ter is left out of the calculations.

Plastics post-consumer waste treatment in 2016 (EU28+NO/CH). Recycling: 31.1%; Landfill 27.3%; Energy recovery 41.6%

Source: Plas­tic­sEu­rope, 2017 (my additions).

Who will buy our plastic waste? 

The graph shows that a sig­nif­i­cant part of the recy­cling takes place out­side the EU. In the UK, this per­cent­age is even high­er: Accord­ing to a report from WRAP, more than half of the plas­tic pack­ag­ing that is col­lect­ed for recy­cling here, is being export­ed to Chi­na and oth­er countries.

So our waste is dragged around the world, but in the end it is put to good use. Or is it? It turns out that it is not that easy to find buy­ers for recy­cled plas­tic. Accord­ing to a report from the Nether­lands Bureau for Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Analy­sis, most of the plas­tic waste that is col­lect­ed in The Nether­lands has a low or even neg­a­tive mar­ket val­ue. Because of the low oil price, pri­ma­ry plas­tic is very cheap at the moment. This reduces the demand for recy­cled plastic.

China — no longer our dump site

Chi­na is the world’s main importer of recy­cled mate­ri­als, because so much pro­duc­tion takes place there. But that has changed this year. Chi­na has sharp­ened qual­i­ty con­trols for waste and even banned par­tic­u­lar types of waste. This is a big prob­lem for local coun­cils all over the UK, because they have lost their main mar­ket for paper and plas­tic waste. UK faces build-up of plas­tic waste”, accord­ing to the BBC. If recy­cling is no longer eco­nom­i­cal­ly viable, coun­cils will be more like­ly to incin­er­ate waste.

Less in, less out 

All in all, I am remind­ed of the rea­son why recy­cling comes last in the slo­gan “reduce, reuse, recy­cle”. In spite of the green and sus­tain­able image of recy­cling, plas­tic is still waste that no one real­ly wants. In prac­tice, recy­cling is often expen­sive and unprof­itable. We can best solve the prob­lems with recy­cling by shift­ing the focus to reduc­ing plas­tic use.

Any waste that is left, should be recy­cled local­ly. We need new appli­ca­tions for recy­cled plas­tic with­in Euro­pean man­u­fac­tur­ing. As yet, this Scot­tish ‘plas­tic road com­pa­ny’ is an excep­tion. And if we still want to send waste abroad, recy­cling process­es should be improved to get a high­er qual­i­ty end prod­uct that has val­ue for manufacturers.