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? Greenpeace UK enlightened me on this subject a short while ago. There’s no WordPress ‘reblog’ button on their site, so, after checking with them it was OK to recycle their words, I had to do it the old-fashioned way….

Take action on plastic pollution

Tell Boris Johnson:
Fix the UK’s plastic waste crisis – stop dumping our plastic waste on other countries; cut the UK’s single use plastic by 50% by 2025; and roll out a Bottle Return Scheme.

(The original page that I copied this from has a widget, at its foot, that invites you to sign the Greenpeace UK petition to the UK’s Prime Minister — I don’t know why it’s at the foot of the page, it’s easily missed there; in fact, I had missed it myself! I’ve just signed though, and I hope you will, too; here’s a direct link to the petition.)


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

Greenpeace suggests that you tweet this (I already did).

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.

Take action on plastic pollution

Tell Boris Johnson:
Fix the UK’s plastic waste crisis – stop dumping our plastic waste on other countries; cut the UK’s single use plastic by 50% by 2025; and roll out a Bottle Return Scheme.

(The original page that I copied this from has a widget, at its foot, that invites you to sign the Greenpeace UK petition to the UK’s Prime Minister — I don’t know why it’s at the foot of the page, it’s easily missed there; in fact, I had missed it myself! I’ve just signed though, and I hope you will, too: if you’ve got this far, you’ve already read the words; here’s a direct link to the petition.)

A man atop a heap of rubbish
This problem is worse than we thought
(I had to crop the header image I used for this post)

Still here? If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t yet signed the petition, maybe Plomomedia can change your mind:

‘Our Today is Forever’ / Plomomedia / Queen

PS Happy May Day.

About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
This entry was posted in ... wait, what?, balance, Biodiversity, Communication, Core thought, Education, Environment, Health, Strategy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

51 Responses to What really happens to your plastic recycling?

  1. daryan12 says:

    The problem is we’ve got the waste pyramid upside down. Its supposed to go Avoid, Reduce, Reuse, etc. with Recycling being the 2nd least worse option ahead of incineration and then landfill. Instead we’re landfilling it until we run out of room, incinerating until nobody want to live near one, so we sneak it overseas (on the pretext of “recycling” it) and landfill/burn it there. Recycling is really only an after thought.
    One thing that frustrates me is how I’ll often see badly designed packaging, with either unrecyclable plastics used, or two types of material that can be recycled, but they’ve been glued together in such a way you can’t separate them and thus neither can be recycled.
    This is less of a problem in places like Germany, where there is much greater use of bottle return systems and packaging tends to be designed such that it just involves the use of less plastics and where they do get used, you can separate them for recycling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pendantry says:

      The biggest problem I see is that ‘recycling’ is just another example of ‘greenwashing’: make it look as though you’re doing something to tackle the problem, but without actually doing anything that makes any difference. If Those In Power were serious about tackling the problem, they would encourage companies like Ecovative, who make packaging materials from natural materials. But instead all they’re interested in is lining the pockets of those who fund their political campaigns, and make themselves richer in the process. Go figure :(

      Liked by 1 person

      • daryan12 says:

        One issue with using natural materials, is what is the ecological impact of its extract, production, distribution etc. And also what is the plan for its end of life (eventually everything wears out). Can it be recycled? If biodegradable, what does it break down into? What happens if big piles of it are left to degrade in the same place? While I’ve seen some good data for certain low-impact materials, others have ended up working out worse for the environment. Devil is really in the detail when it comes to life cycle analysis.
        Which is the point of the waste pyramid, less stuff means less waste. Reusing things like bottles, you don’t need as many of them. If it can be easily recycled then when it does wear out, it doesn’t end up in landfill. And so on.

        Liked by 1 person

        • pendantry says:

          I suggest you follow that link I offered you. Ecovative’s packaging materials are made from mycelium.

          Like

          • daryan12 says:

            I’ve not seen any research data on that particular material, will have to look into that. But if you are growing it, well how? Does it need fertiliser? Cos most of that comes from fossil fuels. Can we grow it outdoors? If so, what would be the impact of that (land use changes can result in carbon emissions, if not properly handled), or does it need to be done inside (which means lighting/climate control, watering, etc., i.e. energy & resource consumption). Even then what about the harvesting (machinery, etc.) and post processing?

            Not saying its a bad idea, just pointing out we’ve been here before and while some worked out in certain specific applications, others turned out to be a bad idea. This is kind of where LCA’s come in.

            Liked by 2 people

          • pendantry says:

            Again, I would suggest that you follow that link I offered you. Here’s a link to the Ecovative ‘technology’ page. Yes, all of your points are valid ones; but this stuff I’m trying to get you to take a look at is made from mushrooms, and, given enough support, could replace all of the toxic white plastic stuff we currently use to protect all the precious garbage that’s shipped around the planet because we all buy it (and really, really shouldn’t) on a regular basis.

            PS I have no clue what ‘LCAs’ are. Care to enlighten me?

            Liked by 1 person

          • daryan12 says:

            LCA stands for Life Cycle Analysis (or assessment). Its essentially an accounting exercise designed to try and work out the exact environmental impact of any product or service.
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-cycle_assessment

            Part of the problem is that very small changes to a process can have a dramatic change to its environmental impact. E.g. Trees are great for absorbing carbon dioxide and are a good natural building material. But if you have to drain peat bogs to grow them, that’s a big dump of green house gases into the atmosphere (granted a one off event, but we have to account for this). You use fossil fuel based fertilisers to grow them quicker, well it gets worse. Transporting them across very long distances, worse again.

            Yet in other cases, the impact can be minimal. E.g. the main environmental impact of a car is the vast amount of fuel it burns over its life. Anything you can do to reduce this, such as lowering the weight by using lighter materials, while this might push up the environmental impact of building the car, it will be cancelled out over the hundreds of thousands of miles the car drives over its life.

            Also some materials while they might not seem great for the environment, they have the advantage of being very easy to recycle. Steel for example is pretty much infinitely recyclable (so long as it can be protected from rusting over its service life). In fact it takes a lot less energy to melt down old steel and re-cast it, than making new steel from raw ore. Plus you can better quality steel by recycling it than making it from iron ore (hence the huge demand for recycled steel in the developing world).

            Like I said, the tricky issue with environmental impacts is that the devil is often in the fine print. Something that seems like a good idea in one situation, might turn out to be a terrible idea if we just tweak one or two of the variables. LCA’s can help identify these choke points and allow for better decisions to be made.

            Liked by 2 people

          • pendantry says:

            That’s very interesting, thanks for elaborating. Some things, though, are total no-brainers, such as don’t clear peat bogs to plant trees… or replace toxic white plastic filler with packaging made from mushrooms.

            Like

          • daryan12 says:

            No brainers….that’s the problem, it might seem that way but you’d be surprised! The danger is that once money, politics and lots of ignorant people gets involved, things can go south.

            E.g. some shops stopped selling single use plastic bags. Then end result, the A**holes just started buying bag’s for life (which have a larger environmental impact) and throwing them away after one use.

            Another example, Jatropha was supposed to be biofuel that could be grown easily in the developing world on non-arable land (thus not taking away land from food production). But that’s not how things worked out
            https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2012/08/22/159391553/how-a-biofuel-dream-called-jatropha-came-crashing-down

            Liked by 1 person

          • pendantry says:

            Your point is well made. My point is that the current systems are so well-entrenched (by the money, politics and ignoramuses) that we sorely need to investigate all possible alternatives — as fast as possible. And my efforts to suggest just one such to you have been met with a barrage of reasons why it might not be appropriate.

            I’m reminded of a conversation I had some years ago on Greg Craven‘s ‘Manpollo Project’ forum with a statistician who insisted that before we instigate any reforestation it would first be necessary to conduct a full environmental impact assessment (EIA). While this sounds reasonable and logical, to me it’s symptomatic of the kind of delaying tactics that the very same money, politics and ignoramuses have used for decades to continue business as usual. I think it was telling that he never responded to my suggestion that we should do the very same ‘EIA’ before we make the decision to continue destroying forests at the current rate…

            Like

  2. leavergirll says:

    I found out last summer what a scam that is. Most plastic is just not recyclable, and they have lied to us for decades.

    Well, what else is new? Wind turbines are another greenwashed scam. F the bastards. And no, I am not recycling plastic any more. Better it gets buried with my garbage than pollute the atmosphere. Recycling just encourages the scammers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      Yes, we’ve been lied to for decades. And the majority have yet to be persuaded of that, as can be evidenced by the fact that they keep voting in disingenuous ‘leaders’.

      However,

      Wind turbines are another greenwashed scam.

      Really? I know that there are issues with the environmental cost of erecting and maintaining them, but aren’t they, pound for pound, better than the alternative?

      Like

      • daryan12 says:

        “Wind turbines are another greenwashed scam”

        This is not borne out by the scientific data. Nugent & Sovacool (2014) determined that wind energy’s carbon footprint is at least 10-20 times lower than that any fossil fuel based option.
        https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0301421513010719?via%3Dihub

        In fact their figures are slightly controversial in being a good deal higher for wind than most other studies. E.g. this study for nuclear energy uses a much lower figure, 4 times lower in fact (so wind might actually be 40-80 times better)..
        https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00472.x

        As for birds, that’s also been looked into and while yes this is a problem, its tiny compared to the mortality rate of birds from other energy sources, nevermind the vast numbers killed by cats and tall buildings.
        https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0301421509001074

        Recycling of wind turbine blades is a problem yes, but there are solutions that are being developed
        https://www.appropedia.org/Recycling_of_wind_turbine_blades

        Liked by 1 person

        • pendantry says:

          Thanks for that, You do realize that I was quoting leavergirl, though, right? You’ve replied to me, not to her, so I’m not sure whether she’ll be alerted to your comment.

          Like

          • leavergirll says:

            Not to worry, I read through the comments.
            Daryan, I am tired of the propaganda. You can’t make the turbines without heavy use of fossil fuels. You can’t transport them without. You can’t bury them without. F all that. The turbines ruin the landscape, are eliminating bats and birds at an alarming rate (and to say that it’s not the only reason is not an argument in favor), and the bullshit about recycling… why not assume it’s just as disingenuous as the rest of the recycling scam? Shit, I am so tired of lies…

            Liked by 1 person

          • pendantry says:

            For someone who is ‘tired of the propaganda,’ perhaps you ought to think twice before propagating it.

            The turbines ruin the landscape

            This is a classic NIMBY argument: it’s purely subjective, and wholly emotional. It is not rational. I for one would not object to wind turbines on my horizon: I would consider them a proud symbol of the attempt by homo fatuus brutus to try to correct the harm inflicted on our planet for more than a century by the blatant lies of the fossoil industry.

            are eliminating bats and birds at an alarming rate

            Another emotive — and arguably false — argument. Daryan has already tried to refute that with the link he offered. Without knowing all the facts, it comes down to a question of who you choose to believe. And I believe that Daryan knows a great deal more about this stuff than you do.

            Yes: I, too, am tired of all the lies.

            Liked by 1 person

          • leavergirll says:

            Wibbler, this post is about the systematic lies of the plastic industry with its recycling subsidiary. And I should believe the stuff the wind turbine industry puts out trying to molify those skeptical of the hype?! Riiight.

            Do you know what it’s like, living near a wind turbine farm? Have you ever driven through places turned nightmarish via the same? I have. I suggest you do. Oklahoma would be a good place to start. Talking to people whose lives have been damaged by them is the next best thing.

            Liked by 1 person

    • daryan12 says:

      “propaganda”
      I’m quoting scientific studies. That means its been put together by experts in the field (often a team of them), its been through a process of peer review (other scientists have checked the paper to make sure its accurate). That’s pretty much the A standard for accuracy. Unless we believe all the scientists and engineers in the world are in on some sort of giant pro-wind conspiracy, even the ones working on solar power and nuclear (who would benefit from wind looking bad).

      So you’re going to dismiss that in favour of whatever lies some like-minded person who you agree with put up on Facebook. The mental gymnastics here would leave Simone Biles dizzy.

      Liked by 1 person

    • daryan12 says:

      Actually I know people who do live next to large wind farms, I’ve been walking near them as well and don’t see what the problem is. Some people even install their own in their garden.

      Have you ever tried to live next to a coal mine? You know they use this thing in the US called mountain top removal, where they literally demolish a mountain to get at the coal. And you are complaining about a few little turbines on top of the hill. Whole communities have had to be relocated. There’s a town on the US called Centralia where an underground coal fire has forced the whole town to relocate. Then there’s fracking, google it and you’ll see people near these operations can lit the water out of their taps on fire.

      Now if you are prepared to give up all the conveniences of modern and go live off the land in in some hippy community you have a point (that said you know where they get a most of their electricity? From solar and wind!). But you don’t offer any alternatives, other that the fact you seem to be ideologically opposed to renewables just so you can own the libs.

      It is a case of least worse options. And wind energy (or solar) is by far and away the least worst option. Not saying we can get all our energy from it (intermittency and all that), but certainly a big part of any solution.

      Liked by 2 people

    • daryan12 says:

      And before anyone brings up wind turbine syndrome, no that’s a myth.
      https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Wind_turbine_syndrome

      If there is such a condition its mostly rightwingers who can’t handle the fact that lib’s were right about something and they were wrong, to such a degree that they make themselves ill. Not to mention the usual NIMBYism that comes with any large development.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s really sad when you see all the trash being put together after you separate it…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is a great post – may I reblog it? The whole Covid situation has also damaged the drive to reduce single use plastic. The lateral flow tests for home use are a mass of single use plastic which has to be sealed in an individual plastic bag each time and put into landfill. Plastic gloves everywhere.

    Liked by 2 people

    • pendantry says:

      Well, when I asked them, Lisa from Greenpeace UK told me§:

      You’re very welcome to reproduce, use information from, or link to our blog https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/news/plastic-recycling-export-incineration/ provided you credit Greenpeace UK as the source.

      I’m pretty certain that Greenpeace wouldn’t object to you hitting that little ‘Reblog’ button. You could always claim that you did it by accident ;)

      § Lisa also thanked me for being a Greenpeace supporter since the 1980s (!) Wow, such a long time, and so very little progress….

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, totally agree. I work in a school and there seems to be complete apathy amongst the students about the environment and green issues or politics. They are not interested. I’ve still got my Greenpeace sweatshirt from the 80s! I might start wearing it again!

        Liked by 2 people

  5. jilldennison says:

    I have been meaning for a year or more to do a post similar to this one, but I keep getting sidetracked. In truth, the U.S. is far worse than the UK, if for no other reason than the population size and the ignorance of half our people who believe … or claim to believe … that climate change is a hoax and that, as one friend told me, “god wants me to be happy”. Grrrrrrrr. Anyway, thanks for the nudge, for I am starting my post tonight!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Omg. The government are adding to pollution. Initially our council would divide you recycling and we also had to keep it separate. Then like other council we got a big bin and no division. I knew our waste was given to other countries. But I never knew they were burning it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Reblogged this on Out Of The Office and commented:

    A post well worth reading from Wibble ….

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Check the bottom of the container. Look at the recycle symble if the number is 1 or 2 the plastic is recyclable if not the symbol is just a lie.
    ;
    ;;
    ;;
    Laugh because… Why not??

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Sustain blog says:

    A proper overview of what happens when plastic is recycled. Thank you 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Gray Dawster says:

    This serious plastic pollution problem is like every other serious problem in our world, each one being passed on, passed by, or in more common terms, and more easily recognised as, just passed caring.

    Nobody solves these problems because the cost to rectify said problems are out of sight, and out of mind. So the solutions aren’t important enough right now, no, best leave it to another generation, hide it, bury it, forget about it.

    We all use these products, they are everyday, throw away, let somebody else deal with it problems that some day, when it’s far too late, like most things, we, humankind will have spoiled our chances of being a cleaner more sustainable world for all that inhabit it.

    More doom and gloom anyone?

    Andro

    Liked by 2 people

  11. parikhit says:

    This is a serious issue all over the world. I have often seen developed countries trying to chide developing countries on reducing their plastic usage, on reducing their carbon footprint while, in fact, they transfer their waste to other countries, like you rightly pointed out Malaysia and Turkey and the garbage then lands up in the oceans, polluting the earth. I have seen heartening images of fishes dying due to plastic and images of turtles trapped and suffocating in them. I guess the issue is as human beings we think and assume that we the right of might over everything, over trees, animals and our environment. In a way we have disassociated ourselves with nature, imaging that we are the ones to protect while in fact we need protection and we are one with Nature, with our natural environment. In my neighbourhood we take immense pains to segregate waste, we make compost out of kitchen waste, but what happens to the segregating waste nobody knows. They are burnt and dumped in landfills. We definitely need a transparency and a change of attitude towards general living.

    Liked by 2 people

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