It’s time the bell tolled for ‘not currently recycled’

Locally, Clap for Carers has replaced bell practice at St John’s Church as the reminder that it is put the bins out night – Thursday evening. 

This time of the week is the culmination of a weekly battle to decide what sort of plastic can go in the mixed recycling wheelie bin. 

Most of us are well past needing to check the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council for what can be recycled and there is an annual four-page A5 sheet delivered, to give us a handy guide each week if we want to keep it on our fridge or other noticeboard place.

But with 39 different collection systems nationwide it is no wonder that a BBC survey which asked what councils collected then revealed that 47% of people argue about what they can recycle in the plastic portion.

If you work outside the borough, in London for example, you might experience some of the differences more acutely if you have workplace recycling. And waste is collected differently, sometimes all in one bin, sometimes not.

Looking at the BBC map – which is from December 2018 – it appears that in Surrey we collect 9-12 types of plastic, while some local authorities collect 13-15 (listed as “most types”). 

Bottles, punnets, pots, tubs and trays are among the many plastic items collected locally. Carrier bags, film and foodbags, cling film plastic pouches and plant pots – collected by a handful of councils on the assessment map – are among plastics that are not collected locally, as confirmed by the council’s website.

Among the difficulties include relevant methods for the councils to recycle these at major plants effectively. This is a slight segway, but to demonstrate, but very few of Britain’s 2.5 billion coffee cups used every year are recycled, because there are so few plants to recycle them, as ably investigated by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s War on Waste in recent years

According to the World Economic Forum, 32% of the world’s annual 78 million tons of plastic packaging waste ends up in the ocean (only 14% recycled and 2% reused).

So it is infuriating to read on packets “check local recycling” (which is likely to mean it isn’t, because if it was largely recycled it tends to say so) and in particular “not yet recycled” on packaging.

“Not yet recycled,” or “not currently recycled” puts the blame on the consumer for buying the item and absolves the manufacturer and seller of responsibility or care for the environment. It also allows sellers to say “well, customers bought the item, so they must want it packaged like that” when they essentially have no other choice, if they want the item.

Cardboard can be recycled, but not the film bag inside covering the cereal
Cardboard can be recycled, but not the film bag inside covering the cereal

It has led to campaigns such as taking back such plastic to supermarkets. Just measure, over a week, how much plastic you can’t recycle, against what you can.

The Government, said the BBC article, proposes to tackle the problem in various ways, from tackling the postcode lottery of recycling to imposing taxes on plastic, encourage manufacturers to design alternative packaging and banning plastic where an alternative is available. Laudible aims, although vague. Packagers are sure to find as many loopholes as they can. 

Many companies are working on the alternatives to plastic, made of biodegradable materials, such as seaweed-based packaging  as listed by Earth Easy and something like this has been used around bubbles of water in marathons to counter plastic bottle usage.

We can change our habits: buy a reusable coffee cup, wrap our sandwiches in beeswax or just use a Tupperware box and use silicone-based reusable items in our kitchen to cover food instead of cling film.

Deposit return schemes to inspire a circular economy – where producers are forced to take responsibility for their own waste – are another possible answer. Some are making efforts to reuse previous packaging, but that 2% indicates it is at the low end of the priorities.

But as well as voting with our feet and not buying the products – recycling is one thing if it is available, but it doesn’t stop the creation of the waste – we can also address this with the companies we buy from. The email addresses of their headquarters are easy enough to find. And while many of their websites detail how they have changed in some ways, those “not currently recycled” notes at the bottom of their packaging indicate they could do better.

Challenge yourself and them to start from the premise:

If it’s not currently recycled, don’t sell it to me.