Emlyn Pagden explains why ‘plastic recycling in the UK’ is not all it seems – and what we can do to change it.

In theory, we should be able to simply discard all plastic based products into our recycling bins and rely on our local councils and collection companies to process the waste correctly. In practice, this isn’t easy. Our waste collection companies don’t have the complex facilities required to correctly recycle plastic, so they remain simply, waste collection companies.

So what needs to change to make recycling go beyond a theoretical process?

Maximise the use of new recycling facilities

Currently, waste management contractors simply harvest what they can, such as bottles to sell on and make money, the rest is sent off to ‘somewhere’. Somewhere is either on a shipping container to another country, to a UK based incinerator or to landfill.[1][2][3][4]

The approach taken by the UK in these referenced articles is far from ideal and doesn’t fix today’s problem,

“billions of tonnes of plastic exists as waste in our oceans and on on land. We need to destroy it, recycle it in the most effective way possible. This ‘is’ today’s problem”.

What can we do, how can we start 2020 in the most positive way, with the biggest impact to reduce all existing plastic waste?

The answer is not simply to use less plastic, that’s a different problem with a whole set of specific issues. The work required to even slightly affect the capitalist world we live in shouldn’t be underestimated. We we will not resolve today’s problem by focusing effort here.[5] The timescales and approach does not ‘today’ remove plastic from the environment, it only looks to reduce future production.

Plastic is not the problem. The problem is a lack of effective and responsible recycling processes, something which should of been put in place decades ago. We must stop blaming plastic, this will not remove the billions of tonnes of existing plastic waste from our environment.[6]

To fix today’s problem, several things need to happen. First, we need more facilities in place which can recycle plastic. You’ll be pleased to know, they exist and are starting to come online around the world[7][8][9][10][11][12].

Change our Mindset

The second thing we need to change is our mind set. Instead of merely focusing on producing less plastic, why don’t we focus on ensuring we can effectively and responsibly recycle all the plastic we manufacture without generating waste?

This needs to extend to all new technology, too – if we are going to produce something, let’s make sure we CAN recycle it after it’s useful life (don’t get me started on certain ‘new eco-friendly technology’ that we can’t recycle either). Let’s not produce it if we can’t recycle it!

Contracts need to change

Where facilities and technology exists, we need waste collection companies to use these facilities.

This can be achieved by County Councils changing existing contracts with collection companies to ensure all waste plastic is sent for chemical recycling, not just disposed of how the carrier chooses. We should also refer to waste plastic as the type collection companies cannot resell for mechanical recycling, companies who for example manufacture benches and garden furniture.

Action, not words, from Corporate Sponsors

Climate campaigns are pressworthy, but it’s time we expected companies funding environmental campaigns to act, not just preach.

Sky’s Ocean Rescue is a prime example. Sky talks a good talk, but isn’t setting sails to the wind and removing plastic from our oceans. I have nothing against Sky, I’m a customer, but an organisation of such wealth and scale can do more.

For example, if they really wanted to make a valuable contribution to solving the climate crisis, Sky could sponsor some sort of “Ocean Rescue Container ship” (ORCA), something which maybe has a crane or scoop which follows, the Giant Plastic Catcher![17]

Sky is, in my view, using funds to focus on observation rather than collection, which achieves little more than to provide an advertising and marketing platform for Sky. I personally don’t see how this rescues our oceans.[13][14][15]

Surely the people in these boats must be thinking as they spot every piece of plastic, wouldn’t it be really useful if we actually collected the plastic!

Seriously, this isn’t rocket science! Come on Sky, must do better! Please put that 25m GBP investment fund towards creating more Giant Plastic Catchers (GPCs).

Once collected, the waste could be delivered to a port near to one of the facilities which has the chemical recycling capability to effectively recycle plastic waste. This would be a far better use of funds and would make a tangible difference to a very real problem.

Local and National Government needs legislative change

Unfortunately, relying on councils and corporate waste managers to ‘do the right thing’ when budgets are tight is not enough. We need our Government to stipulate every council in the UK must ensure all waste collection companies collect all plastic waste and forward this waste to chemical processing plants.

If parliament can pass a Brexit bill in a day then this should be a breeze.

Develop commercial frameworks for end-to-end recycling of plastics.

From a commercial perspective, chemical recycling works.

Waste plastic has little value to waste collection companies and is the feedstock used for chemical recycling.

Once operational costs are taken into account, chemical recycling plants are able to run a viable business, given the products produced from chemical recycling are oil based.[16] – however, at present the commercial frameworks need some work. That, however is the easy bit compared to tackling the huge amount of plastic waste we currently face.

The solutions are there and they exist. It’s up to us to enforce change.


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