Why recycling won’t solve our plastic problem by Katie MacMillan

Of more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic that have been produced since the mid-1950s, 6.3 billion has become plastic waste – and over half of that is from the past 16 years. We have all become accustomed to a disposable lifestyle, and it is only in the past year that the ramifications of this have piqued significant recognition following Blue Planet II’s reporting on our environment’s destruction by single-use plastic.

For most of us, our action towards the plastic problem is recycling. We can justify the purchase of items that are made out of or wrapped in plastic because we will put it in the recycling. However, the effort we all put into recycling will never be enough to halt the steady stream of plastic pollution. Many of us assume that by recycling, we are altering the system due to the material being reused; yet, in 2016, Europe still sent 7 of its 27 million tonnes of plastic waste to landfill – the equivalent weight of 65,000 blue whales. Globally, only 9% of all plastic is currently recycled, leaving a significant amount of plastic that isn’t accepted, which ends up in either landfill or our oceans (8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean every year), where an item such as a plastic bottle could take 450 years to decompose.

Where plastics are viable for recycling, there’s no separation by their differing types, of which there are more than 50 (the more common of which are shown in the diagram here). Therefore, their mixing results in an impure and lower grade plastic which is less usable than the newer forms – because of this, a plastic bottle could rarely be recycled back into another plastic bottle. These lower grade materials are generally far more difficult to turn back into everyday items, and many companies choose new (virgin) plastics as they tend to be cheaper and easier to manufacture. Recycling is a completely viable option for products such as glass and metal, which work a complete cycle, but this tends not to be the case for plastics. While plastic can be recycled, there is a limit: plastics are made of long chains of polymers that shorten with each recycle, meaning the recycling of plastic is finite.

As consumers, we have developed an ever-growing demand for plastic alternatives, which will combat our waste, but scientific innovation has been unable to match this demand. We need to look further than reusable cups and straws in order to really make a difference in our plastic problem. Recycling is clearly not working as the solution, as it still doesn’t curb the large quantities of new plastic disposable items that are being produced daily. We need to change our perspective to view recycling as the last resort to dealing with plastic, by adjusting our focus to prioritise the 3R’s of reduce, reuse, and recycle – in that order. We need to drastically change the way we consume products to reduce our everyday waste, rather than accepting recycling as a fast fix.

As scientific innovation is limited, many large-scale corporations find themselves unable to keep up with the demand for non-plastic items. Though many have developed sustainability reports, it will still take at least a few years before virgin plastics are removed from shelves, though many will still use ‘widely recycled’ plastics. However, changes can be seen from the likes of Morrisons’ reintroduction of paper bags for fresh produce, and Marks and Spencer’s recent trial of a plastic free section of fruit and vegetables in one of its stores.

Some ways we can all change our plastic consumption

While many of us are aware of the 5p cup charges in many coffee shops, it’s not something that deters all of us. 5p is not exactly an inspiring amount, but for those buying daily coffees it certainly all adds up. Certain shops also offer further discounts with reusable cups, which prompts even greater savings, and this becomes even more if we make one to-go from home. Similar can be said for purchasing bottled water – on average a bottle costs £1. Based on this assumption, if one was bought daily over the course of a year, there would be a significant saving if this was halted.

There are further simple changes like shopping at Farmer’s Markets where we can take our own bags, or simply choosing loose produce in supermarkets can also make a big difference.

Switching to bars of shampoo, conditioner and soap is not only free of plastic packaging, but also tends to last longer than bottles of liquid product, meaning you buy less. Lush is one of the popular brands on the high street, with additional accessible options like Foamies in Boots.

Additionally, meal prepping and home-cooking in bulk would not only reduce our plastic usage, but often saves money too. Taking food to work or school in reusable containers with our own cutlery further aids the bank account, but also eliminates plastic just by taking a fork from the cutlery drawer, instead of picking up a plastic one from the shop.

There are a variety of ways we can all make changes - while some may be small scale, it’s important to remember that regardless of the size, it all makes a difference. Some more detailed options can be found online on websites such as https://myplasticfreelife.com/plasticfreeguide/ .

We cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution because we’re using too much plastic to start with. At present, there is a need to improve the current system of recycling to create a circular economy, which ensures that no plastics end up in landfill by reusing those already in existence. However, the ideal scenario to efficiently tackle plastics is to phase them out completely by combining corporate and personal action, and by recognising the need to prioritise the planet by reducing our purchases, rather than prioritising our convenience.

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