Look at the recycling logo on a plastic bottle or container. It depicts a continuous loop, a virtuous circle, if you like, of plastic being made into bottles then being recycled into new bottles then the whole process repeating endlessly. Nothing falls out of the cycle and nothing new is introduced. It is a bit misleading. It doesn't take much imagination to realise that energy needs added to the process at the very least - energy for collecting the used plastic, treating it and manufacturing the new bottles. Less obvious is the fact that very few food grade bottles contain material from recycled bottles. Plant has been developed to do this but at this time its use not widespread.
Part of the focus of the Recycling Week is on recycling plastic bottles. WRAP quotes figures of just under 50% of plastic bottles used by UK households being recycled yet around 90% of Local Authorities provide kerbside recycling schemes. Some of the losses may be attributed to the lack of recycling facilities out and about, laziness or in some cases confusion about what can and can’t be recycled. This is a specification from Glasgow City Council’s website:
"Plastic Fizzy Drinks Bottles, Plastic Milk Bottles, Plastic Shampoo and Bleach Bottles"
It is quite prescriptive: why fizzy drinks bottles but not water bottles, or shampoo bottles but not bubble bath bottles? We could apply some common sense to this and recycle other bottles, but what about other plastics that are the same as the bottles? I have been advised that other shapes of similar plastics should not be recycled because the sorting process cannot deal with them. Another leaflet available on GCC’s website just states plastic bottles without any further qualification. Presumably we can recycle any plastic bottles, even ones used for motor oil, for example.
Looking at other plastics of the same type and with the same recycling logo, the second leaflet is quite specific that margarine tubs and yoghurt pots can’t be recycled but no mentions is made of other packaging such as plastic punnets, like the ones strawberries, tomatoes and grapes sometimes come in? They aren’t bottles but they aren’t margarine tubs either. Zero Waste Scotland say that 90% of rigid plastics (which includes plastic punnets) are not recycled.
Back to my first point, that the bottles aren’t recycled into other bottles but made into other products. Plastics recycled from domestic waste are generally limited to bottles made from PET or HDPE (codes 1 or 2 on the recycling logo) which means that the processed recycled material is a mixed material rather than specific individual materials, such as with aluminium recycling. This is often termed down-cycling: we are making a lower grade material than the virgin materials and the new material is harder to recycle than the original product. This means that fleeces or plant pots made from recycled plastic will not be readily recycled. Fortunately, many of these items made from the recycled material have a much longer useful life than the original product and will therefore need recycling less frequently.
I take two things from the current state of plastic recycling, first that we need to recycle more of the materials that we use and second that we need to truly recycle rather than downgrading the original materials. The first of these is in all of our hands, the second comes down to councils, waste processing contractors and manufacturers accepting a wider range of materials and processing to a higher standard.
Just to reiterate the benefits of recycling, the following figure is taken from “How Bad Are Bananas” by Mike Berners-Lee. It shows the carbon footprint of sending plastics to landfill rather than recycling compared with other materials. It has six times the impact of putting steel cans in landfill or twelve times the impact of glass.
As a footnote, none of the above addresses recycling of thin film plastics used in packaging or as carrier bags. It falls into the “too hard” category and is still not being addressed.