The truth about plastic and recycling in 2022 and exactly what is harmful to the environment

Reducing single-use plastic and adopting a stricter recycling routine is on many of our lists to be greener.

We’ve all been through this; standing outside over the wastepaper basket and wondering if you can put the plastic lid/pizza box/toothpaste tube in it. And then throw it in anyway.

Remember when it was as simple as a Sunday trip to the bottle bank? Now it feels like you need to take a recycling class to be qualified on how to handle your household waste.

There is no doubt that we have a garbage problem. The target of recycling 50 percent of “household waste” by 2020 fell short as household recycling fell to 44 percent, compared with 45.5 percent in 2019, as lockdowns caused people to spend more time at home. At the same time, total household waste increased from 22.1 million tons in 2019 to 22.6 million tons in 2020.

Those are big numbers – and behind them there is significant confusion among consumers who want to do their part but are at a loss as to what can and cannot be recycled and the differing regulations from different local authorities.

So what is the truth about plastic and recycling? Read below to find out.

The truth about plastic and recycling

Is plastic always bad?

This is the startling situation faced by James Piper, who wrote The Rubbish Book, in which he hopes to help dispel myths surrounding recycling. And is plastic always bad?

Piper has been in the recycling space for over a decade teaching household brands and retailers how to get packaging design and recycling right. For the past five years he has been CEO of a leading environmental consultancy.

At 300 pages, his book is a testament not only to his thorough knowledge of his subject, but also how much there is to know. “Mine is probably the only book written to be thrown out,” Piper jokes.

The book is not only a reference guide for all these recycling questions, but also dispels some of the common misconceptions about recycling.

First, he says, everything can be recycled. “Rather, some products cannot be recycled economically.”

Many companies, such as those that rely on tricky composite packaging, have invested money in this area, and future legislation will help increase plastic collection and recycling through additional costs for those companies that don’t have recycled plastic in their packaging use.

However, plastic isn’t always as bad as you think it is, says Piper. “Everyone lumps plastic together, but there are many types. We cannot live in a world that is just anti-plastic. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

PET plastic used in bottles is much more recyclable than plastic wrap or styrofoam. “From a collection perspective, plastic has a bad reputation because it’s used in so many places.”

That’s because it can have a helpful purpose. Take this cucumber wrapped in disposable plastic wrap. “It lasts longer than the unpackaged one and it reduces food waste both in transit and in your home.”

Are bags helpful for life?

Piper also cites the ban on single-use plastic bags in supermarkets as an example. “Reducing the use of single-use plastic bags by 95 percent is correct, but it doesn’t include the sale of plastic bags for life. In fact, we all buy 57 Bags for Life a year,” he says, citing a report by Co-op that found the weight of the plastic used had increased by 440 percent as a result.

Part of the problem, he explains, is that consumer emotions often move faster than a supply chain can evolve. “So shortcuts are being taken and positive PR sought as the world eschews plastic and turns to alternatives without questioning the environmental impact of the new options.”

Coffee Pod Policy

Piper likes to cause a stir among his friends by explaining that coffee pods, often seen as society’s scourge, are actually quite eco-friendly considering they use less coffee than bean-to-cup. “Packaging typically accounts for only about five percent of a product’s environmental impact.”

So recycling is not about right and wrong. “It all depends on what metrics you use.”

Metrics of Recycling

Aluminum cans appear to be a better alternative to plastic, “but to melt aluminum you have to heat it to 750 degrees. So when you measure carbon emissions, plastic is better.”

The quest for plastic-free after watching Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet may feel noble, but Piper points out that most microplastics come from uses outside of packaging: 50 percent of the plastic that ends up in the oceans as microplastics comes from tires and clothing. Meanwhile: “Plastic packaging that ends up in a recycling facility isn’t a bad thing,” he says.

Plastic milk bottles today contain around 30 percent recycled content and the fact that milk bottles are made of natural colored high density polyethylene (HDPE) makes them very recyclable.

Compare that to your doorstep milk delivery in a glass bottle, usually with a foil lid. Each bottle needs to be reused an average of 15 to 20 times to be as efficient as plastic from a carbon perspective; on average they are reused 18 times.

However, all of this happens before you stare helplessly into the abyss of your recycling boxes.

No “wish wheel”

There are more than 350 different survey methods nationwide. In densely populated areas, speed of collection is prioritized, resulting in an abundance of commingled collections, which then reduces the quality of materials collected and means contamination is more likely.

“You can help by always rinsing and drying your food and beverage packaging before throwing it in the recycling bin,” says Piper.

And the last thing you should be doing is what he calls “wishcycling” — throwing something into a recycling bin that can’t be recycled in hopes it somehow will. “This can be worse than throwing away something that could be recycled, as the contamination impacts other products that can be recycled.” Over 80 percent of people say they wish to cycle. “And it seems to be increasing as people respond to the increased media focus on the damage that packaging can do to the environment.”

Plastic films and foils, such as carrier bags or vegetable bags, are among the items that are most frequently recycled. Other key contaminants are drinking glasses, kitchen utensils, clothing and diapers, which can affect a whole load of recycling, meaning it could all be sent to incineration or landfill.

Other common culprits are batteries, toothpaste tubes, plastic toys, and cardboard boxes that are sent for recycling in areas where the community doesn’t collect them. Piper’s simple rule is that if there’s a risk of contamination, it’s better to undercycle than overcycle.

Intelligent recycling

It is hoped that by 2024 the UK will have more standardized collections. Understanding the sorting process can help you recycle better for now.

Much of this is automated, but before the machine process begins, there’s often a manual sorting process: with a team of people sorting out any obvious contaminants, like packets of crisps, plastic bags, tubes of toothpaste, and the odd Persian rug or two, on a conveyor belt.

There are currently around 85 large material recycling facilities (MRFs) accredited to accept waste in the UK. They are designed to separate mixed recyclables into individual materials prior to sale. Separating materials increases the value of the waste as the separated streams are easier to recycle later in the chain.

Most MRF sorts are based on item size, with small items literally and metaphorically falling through the cracks. This means that lids can (and probably will) be missed in the sorting and recycling process as they can fall through the various gaps or off the numerous conveyor belts.

In the future, Piper looks forward to non-valuable types of plastic becoming more valuable and thus recyclable. Though he admits he sounds pro-plastic, he prefers to describe himself as packaging agnostic. “I want consumers to really ask, ‘Do I need this packaging?’ I’m a big fan of refill shops.”

Ultimately, the motto is “reduce, reuse, recycle”. “Our job as consumers is to think about the whole chain,” says Piper. “Avoid using hard-to-recycle plastics like polystyrene and PVC. What I really want is for us all to be more conscious consumers, but not take on that simple narrative.”

The best rules for recycling The truth about plastic and recycling in 2022 and exactly what is harmful to the environment

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