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.
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.
- PlasticsEurope, 2017: Plastics – the Facts 2017
- WRAP, 2016: Plastics Market Situation Report
- Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, 2017: De circulaire economie van kunststof; van grondstoffen tot afval
Press release: Meer plastic inzamelen levert beperkte milieuwinst: innovaties geboden