21 Apr 2020

On waste and recycling

I’ve always felt that it is a good idea to have a waste strategy for every home I have lived in. Something just a bit more sophisticated than sticking everything in the bin, which is what used to happen. Over the years, it is something which we as a country have been encouraged to do as well. Whereas when I was a child there was one bin, now there are at least three and we are expected to sort the waste we produce into the correct bins.

The first UK bottle bank was opened in 1977 (in Barnsley, naturally). Things started slowly but got moving on a national level in the 1990s. Then, in 2003. the Household Waste Recycling Act was passed. It required every local authority in England to provide each household with a separate collection of at least two types of recycled material by 2010. The age of the wheelie bin was well and truly with us and it seemed like we were entering a phase where the country would stop dumping everything in landfill and start to get to grips with all the waste we generated.

But looking at it now, it seems that perhaps our hopes were misplaced. It turns out an awful lot of our waste was simply being loaded onto vast container ships and sent to China where they did heaven knows what with it. In 2018, China said enough is enough since when we have finally had to confront the fact that, though we collect all this waste, we don’t really have much idea what to do with it. For whilst local authorities are mandated to collect different waste streams, they are free to decide what goes into which stream and they are under no obligation to see that any of it actually gets recycled.

So confusion reigns. Each local authority has its own rules and the rules themselves are often most unclear. Take the vexed example of plastic packaging: we are swimming in the stuff. But it turns out that some of it is recyclable whilst other stuff isn’t. So which is it? As you stand over your kitchen bins with some plastic packaging in hand, do you put it into the black bin for landfill or the blue bin for recycling? Or perhaps your bins are a different colour — they couldn’t even decide on that.

If you are like me, you hesitate then hazard a guess. I sometimes even refer to the council website to see what goes where. But too often I draw a complete blank as the thing I am trying to dispose of isn’t mentioned. Wheareas once upon a time I used to pride myself of recycling almost everything and hardly ever having to put something in the landfill bin, I now realise I was being hopelessly optimistic. 

Recycling itself is run as a market operation. If there is a market for the material you throw away, it can be separated, bundled up and sent of for reuse. All well and good. That’s what you hope will happen. But if the market price drops below what it costs to do the recycling, then what used to get sent to China now ends up back in landfill or in the incinerator, which is where the problem started.

Have we really spent 30 years deluding ourselves about recycling? In that time it’s become the mark of a good citizen that you take your recycling seriously, trying to send very little to landfill. But for all the effort we’ve made in our kitchens and bin stores, it appears that what actually gets recycled is pretty minimal, and it’s not even increasing. The recycling bin labelled "The Chinese will sort it out" has been closed for good.

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