The Recycling Fiasco

30 Nov, 2011 | EnvironmentPoliticsTdp

I'm a big fan of recycling, I try and do my part, at least when it doesn't involve too much effort.  A recent Dispatches programme made me realise I should probably be recycling more.  Typically I hadn't been recycling plastic food trays, for example, or the plastic trays I buy some of my sliced meat in.  So I started giving them a rinse and putting them in.  It's had a marked difference on my general waste, reducing it drastically.

Recently I was met with a question though, I had a piece of packaging with a recycle logo and the letters PPE.  I wasn't sure if my council took this so decided to look it up.  It turns out PPE stands for Polyphenylene Ether, which didn't mean much to me either.  Not that it really made any difference, as my council, Test Valley, don't really go into much detail as to what can be recycled.  Under plastics in their A to Z Recycling Guide, for example, there is no information about the different types of plastic.  The breakdown on the What You Can and Cannot Recycle with Test Valley page is equally high level.  It does state that mixed plastics (stating some examples, like yoghurt pots and meat trays) are not recyclable and on the recycling guide it also says the same thing, apparently because the recycling technologies and markets do not exist in the UK.

Reading a BBC article from 2003 I found this quote though:

"All this food packaging of yours is recoverable but there's no effective subsidised collection system in the UK to make it worth the effort.

"If there was, we could turn it into car parts, video cassettes, shampoo bottles - we have 1,100 product applications. Anything that can be made from virgin plastic can be made from recycled plastic. The quality is the same."

Even the RecycleNow website it states that yoghurt pots can be recycled and that you should check with your local authority as there are limited facilities, which should improve "over the next year or so."  But this article by The Daily Green on plastics symbols, suggests PET/PETE (a triangle with a 1 in it) is also used for 'ovenable food trays' which means they're just as recyclable as plastic bottles.  So are some recyclable?  How do you tell?  The tray my ham comes in states on the back that neither the film plastic (the clear sheet on the front I assume) or the label paper are currently recycled, but says nothing about the tray itself.

So how do you know if something is recyclable?  Well with clear, concise information on the packet, surely.  I mean, I don't know one type of plastic from another by looking at it and I don't have a mass spectrometer to analyse them.  Well have a look at the multitude of symbols available.  Is it any wonder we struggle?  The packaging I mentioned at the start has the 'green dot' logo, which is European it seems, and "signifies that the producer has made a contribution towards the recycling of packaging."  What the hell does that mean?  Can we not just have a logo that states if something is recyclable, that's it, in the recycle bin it goes?  The problem is made worse by different councils working in different ways.

Now, my council don't accept glass, or Tetra Paks  (cartons with the twist cap) or carrier bags, amongst many other things.  So I walk those down to my local recycling centre when I have a few.  I can't do that with 'mixed plastics' though, even if I wanted to, they don't offer the facility.  What's equally galling is that where I live the boundary between my council and their neighbour is ill-defined.  There are streets on the estate where I live that fall into our neighbour's jurisdiction, in fact a half-dozen houses at the end of one of the streets do, while the rest fall under Test Valley (whoever works out these lines are idiots).  And they have a completely different recycling programme because, in addition to green bins, they also have collections for glass, batteries and food waste all in separate bins.

Surely we should have a national standard, where all councils work in exactly the same way and collect exactly the same thing?  Then you get the benefit of scale, of standardised processes, of being able to learn lessons from one another.  Currently it's a complete mix.

So why is it important?  Well, aside from the environmental benefits and the fact that we're running out of landfill space, the government have targets to meet, set by the EU.  We're supposed to recycle 50% of our household waste by 2020.  According to Defra, we currently recycle around 40%.  Off course, those figures come from councils, who take them from the recycling companies and no one checks.  As a recent Panorama programme explains, many of them are just shipping the stuff overseas and dumping it in third-world countries.

Recycling is a complete mess.  It needs, pardon the pun, cleaning up.  Make all councils work the same way, get some standard labels and recycle more of the things we use (or force manufacturers and suppliers to use only materials that can be recycled).  Legislate what packaging can be used by companies to reduce it wherever possible as well, to stop it even entering the chain.  It sounds simple, it isn't, but neither is it rocket science.