Boris Johnson has said “recycling isn’t the answer” when it comes to tackling waste and climate change – so should we still bother washing out every last yoghurt pot?
Ahead of COP26, the UN’s climate summit, the prime minster sat down with WWF UK’s chief executive Tanya Steele to answer schoolchildren’s climate change questions.
A pupil told the PM that she uses a recyclable toothbrush and reusable water bottle, and asked what more she and others could do to protect the planet.
“The issue with plastics, is that recycling isn’t the answer, I’ve got to be honest with you,” Johnson replied.
“You’re not going to like this, but recycling doesn’t begin to address the problem. You can only recycle plastic a couple of times. And what you’ve got to do is stop the production of plastic, stop the first use of plastic. Recycling is a red herring.”
Steele quickly added: “We have to reduce, we have to reuse – I do think we need to do a little bit of recycling, PM, and have some system to do so.”
The comments have divided environmental campaigners, which doesn’t exactly help the average consumer trying to make greener choices.
Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, applauded the prime minister’s stance. “We have been swallowing the myth about recycling plastic for decades and it is time to wake up to the fact there are no recycling fairies,” she said in a statement.
But Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, called the comments “very disappointing”.
“I think he has completely lost the plastic plot here, if I’m honest,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme. “We need to reduce and I would completely agree with him on that, but his own government has just invested in the resources and waste strategy, which is the most ground-breaking recycling legislation and plan that we’ve ever seen, with recycling right at the front of it.”
So, should we continue to recycle? Or are our efforts barely making an impact?
Marcus Gover, CEO of WRAP – which works with governments, businesses, and communities to improve resource efficiency around the world – says yes, recycling on an individual level is still worth it.
“Recycling does work and is a critical part of tackling climate change,” he tells HuffPost UK. “It takes 75% less energy to produce a plastic bottle made from recycled content compared to new plastic.”
Research from WRAP suggests UK recycling saves 18 million tonnes of CO2 every year and nine out of 10 UK people are now recycling. However, Gover does agree with Johnson that we “need to do more with less”.
“That applies to single use packaging as much as anything else,” he says. “Of course we must be careful that there are no unforeseen consequences and that reducing packaging does not cause more damage to the planet, through more food waste, for example. Making sure that the packaging we need is recyclable does make a big difference.
“Recycling packaging in the UK helps to limit climate change, reduce pollution and create jobs. It’s good for people, planet and pocket.”
Maja Darlington, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK, agrees that recycling won’t solve the issue of climate change – but that doesn’t mean people should stop doing it.
“The prime minister is right. Recycling alone is not the silver bullet that will solve our plastic problem. The UK is still one of the major drivers of the global plastic crisis, generating more plastic waste per person than any other country except the USA,” she tells HuffPost UK. “We will not be able to recycle our way out of this mess. We need to turn off the tap of plastic pollution, and move to a system which prioritises reuse.”
Individuals should continue recycling though, she adds, because it does make a difference. However, dealing with the issue of overproduction would make a bigger difference and have the most meaningful impact.
“The government has the power to sort this out now. We hope that the prime minister will turn the rhetoric into action and set a 50% single use plastic reduction target in the Environment Bill,” she says.
“If the government acts to force supermarkets and companies like Coke to reduce their plastic production, our recycling system will be more efficient, and there would be no excuse to export or incinerate our plastic.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.