What really happens to your plastic recycling?

Many of us spend time carefully sorting our recycling. But what actually happens to the plastic waste we put out for collection?

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The UK produces more plastic waste per person than almost any other country in the world, and many of us spend time carefully sorting our recycling. But what actually happens to the plastic bottles, yoghurt pots and plastic wrap we put out for collection?

Does our plastic recycling actually get recycled?

With the world waking up to the threat of plastic pollution, we’re being bombarded with adverts telling us to recycle more. Many of us take immense care when recycling, but what happens to it once it’s collected?

Household recycling gets taken to a sorting facility where people and machines separate the recycling into different types – such as aluminium cans, paper and cardboard, plastic and general rubbish. These can be pretty grim places, as my colleagues discovered when they went undercover in a West London centre a couple of years ago.

The government claims that almost half of the UK’s plastic packaging gets recycled, but that simply isn’t true.

Thousands of tonnes of our household plastic packaging put out for recycling, as well as other kinds of plastic waste ends up in waste incinerators in the UK. Incinerators are giant furnaces for burning waste, and they cause air pollution, noise, smells, litter and traffic as waste is trucked in and smoke pours from the chimneys. Incinerators are overwhelmingly located in low-income areas and neighbourhoods with more people of colour. Some also goes into landfill, where it can leach toxic chemicals into the environment.

But the rest gets recycled though, right? Wrong.

The UK is dumping our waste on other countries

Well over half of the household plastic packaging the government claims is recycled is sent abroad, most of it going to countries with very low recycling rates and a serious problem  with plastic waste being dumped or burned illegally.

Unbelievably, the amount the UK sends abroad is the equivalent of three and a half Olympic swimming pools every single day.

The government claims all of this exported plastic gets recycled, but the truth is we have no idea what really happens to it because no one bothers to check.

Imported plastic is seen discarded at an illegal recycling site that was recently shut down by government authorities in Kuala Langat, Malaysia © GAIA/CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 / Adam Dean

Where our plastic waste goes changes all the time, because countries aren’t keen to clean up our mess and are trying to ban plastic waste imports. A few years ago most of our plastic “recycling” went to China; at the moment, more than half is going to Turkey and Malaysia.

It’s actually illegal to export plastic waste unless it’s going to be recycled, but Greenpeace investigators have found British plastic dumped by the side of the road, abandoned in illegal dumps or even set on fire in Turkey and Malaysia.

Plastic waste isn’t just a problem for nature, it’s a problem for people too

Plastic waste that gets dumped abroad can get blown by the wind into rivers and oceans, and a recent study shows plastic packaging and plastic bags is the most deadly form of plastic pollution for marine life. But what’s lesser known is that plastic waste dumps are causing serious health problems for people who live nearby.

In Malaysia, CK Lee, a local solicitor who works with the Kuala Langat Environmental Association told us that local residents “were having breathing difficulties, having difficulty to sleep, feeling nausea, [and] feeling unwell” from breathing in the toxic fumes and smoke from plastic waste that had been dumped and burned in the open air. This is wrong. It’s unjust. And it has to stop.

You shouldn’t stop recycling – but recycling alone isn’t the solution

The sad truth is that less than 10% of everyday plastic – the plastic packaging that the things we buy is wrapped in – actually gets recycled in the UK.

And despite what the adverts tell you, the problem isn’t that people aren’t recycling enough. The problem is that there is still far too much throwaway plastic being produced – so much in fact that we’re having to burn it or dump it on other countries to deal with.

So, should you stop recycling? No – a recycling system that works well is an important part of the puzzle. But the UK government needs to take urgent action to solve the wider problem.

“The problem isn’t that people aren’t recycling enough. The problem is that there is still far too much throwaway plastic being produced”
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The government needs to cut single-use plastics

The government claims to be a global leader in tackling plastic pollution, but it is failing to address this crisis responsibly. Its small gestures towards stemming the plastic tide, like banning plastic cotton bud sticks, stirrers and straws have had a minimal impact. Meanwhile, more significant reforms like introducing a plastic bottle ‘deposit return scheme’ have been repeatedly delayed.

If the UK produced half as much single-use plastic, we could end waste exports, and send less plastic into incineration and landfill. The government should commit to a 50% reduction in single-use plastic by 2025 – and supermarkets and major brands must deliver it if we’re going to properly protect people and the planet from plastic pollution.

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