Britain disposes of enough single-use plastic waste in a year to fill the Albert Hall 1,000 times, the Prime Minister said in a speech this week. It was an eye-catching statement, delivered alongside a grandiose plan that has been immediately criticised for being heavy on rhetoric but conspicuously light on everything else.
Crucially, the central commitment to eradicate plastic waste was given a generous 25-year timeframe that lies well-beyond Theresa May’s political shelf-life. It also came with an enormous caveat - only “avoidable” plastic waste is covered.
But what exactly does avoidable mean in this context? The plan says little on that fundamental point but according to recycling experts there are some clear examples of products that could be cut almost overnight without hurting businesses or consumers.
Latte levies, carrier bag charges and plastic bottle deposit schemes are a “distraction” from much bigger issues, says Simon Mountain, director of Mid UK Recycling, which processes waste from homes across Lincolnshire as well as some London boroughs.
None of the policies address the key issue that billions of items thrown into recycling bins each year simply can’t be recycled, at least not economically. Often the reason is simply that they are designed with aesthetics in mind rather than the planet.
Other items that are churned out and chucked away by the hundreds of millions present much bigger problems than coffee cups for recycling plants, says Mountain. Wet wipes, sandwich boxes, drinking straws and pet food pouches are among the top offenders.
Pouches used for soups, pet food and Capri-sun use two types of plastic with a foil layer inside, making them “completely unrecyclable” unless they are entirely segregated out from other items and then put through a complex process using microwaves to cook off all of the different materials at their respective boiling temperatures. Needless to say, that’s expensive and uses up a lot of energy.
Top recycling offenders
The everyday items that cause the biggest problems
Ready meal trays
Pet food pouches
Plastic drinking straws
“ Foilised ” wrapping paper
While they may be convenient, pouches have replaced something altogether easier to recycle. The humble food tin and aluminium can are both easy to process. They can be picked out with magnets, melted down and reused an almost unlimited number of times.
Our ever-expanding appetite for food on the go is one of the biggest sources of problematic plastic waste.
We spent £8bn on ready-made sandwiches in 2017 but their containers are a particular bugbear at for recycling plants. Not only are they are made from laminated card that makes separating plastic from paper extremely difficult, but they have a see-through window made from an entirely different type of plastic.
“They keep banging on about a latte levy but if they are going to do that they should have a sandwich pack levy as well”, says Mountain.
Sandwich packaging is another example of industry going backwards. Older containers, made entirely from clear plastic, were far simpler to reprocess, says Mountain.
It’s not just in the world of food where convenience has been our downfall. Wet wipes, in all their scented, antibacterial, throwaway glory, are a “big no-no”, says Mountain.
“They’re basically a woven plastic,” he says.
“If you look under a microscope, they’re fibrous so they don’t break down and they maintain their moisture, but they just don’t rot. People throw them in the recycling bin thinking they’re going to be recyclable.
“Well there is just no way it’s going to happen.”
The 70 million plastic straws estimated to end up in landfill each year aren’t recycled for the simple reason that they are too small.
“I have no interest in ever recycling straws,” says Mountain.
When the contents of an average household recycling bin ends up at a processing plant, materials are separated, either by hand or with a machine that uses a near-infrared beam to size up what’s on the conveyor belt. Bigger items are much easier to pick out.
The process is either labour-intensive or requires a large investment in machinery. With recycled plastic selling between £35 and £75 per tonne, picking out straws isn’t cost effective.
Another convenient food item - the sauce sachet - presents a double whammy of bad news for recycling plants. Not only are they tiny, they’re also made from multiple materials: plastic outer layer with a lining made of foil or a different plastic. Cotton buds cause similar issues.
“Very easily, the Government could say to retailers: ‘we do not allow this material, it’s not helpful, it’s not sustainable, it’s not recyclable’"
Simon Mountain, director, Mid UK Recycling
Much of the problem isn’t down to the fact that individual items can’t be recycled, but that they just aren’t being sorted properly so get sent to an incinerator.
Many of the estimated half a billion plant pots in circulation in the UK will end up in landfill because they’re a different kind of plastic to food packaging which makes up much of our waste, says Stephen Cameron, sales director at SWRnewstar, which provides waste management and recycling services to some of the UK's biggest businesses.
So what can firms do to combat the problem?
First, there needs to be a rethink on the variety of plastics we use in the UK, says Mountain. Less different types of plastics and simpler product designs would mean rapid improvements in recycling rates.
A move towards biodegradable plastics made from starch polymers could also help, says Cameron. “There are a number of compostable ‘grab and go’ packaging options available on the market; including, hot drink cups, plastic salad boxes, deli pots among others,” he points out. But they are no panacea. The packaging breaks down quickly but it is still single use and the materials are not recovered.
The UK needs large-scale investment to increase the number of commercial composting sites required to process these relatively new materials. A greater number of specific collections to take waste to composting are also required because compostable plastics can ruin a whole batch of traditional plastic recycling if the two types are mixed, Mountain says.
Economic incentives also need to be radically altered. Manufacturers must be encouraged to use recovered material in new products, says Richard Kirkman, chief innovation officer at Veolia UK and Ireland. When the oil price is low, “virgin” plastics are often cheaper than recycled ones.
A study this week by MoneySavingExpert.com found that more than half of a sample of different vegetables taken from supermarkets were cheaper to buy wrapped in plastic than loose. In this context the Government’s proposal to encourage plastic-free aisles seems far too weak to usher in the radical change to consumer behaviour that's needed.
Much higher taxes on plastic packaging, and stronger measures for hard-to-recycle items are needed, says Mountain.
“Very easily, the Government could say to retailers: ‘we do not allow this material, it’s not helpful, it’s not sustainable, it’s not recyclable’ and ban it.”