Misconceptions about Plastic Recycling

We all know recycling is better for the planet than having it shipped to landfill, not as impactful as reducing or reusing mind you, but a valid component of the system. Plastic recycling is now being touted as a cover up by the industry to appease consumers in their purchase, who likely believe their plastic bottle or container is being fully recycled endlessly; even being compared to the tobacco industry’s efforts to convince smokers that filtered cigarettes are healthier than unfiltered cigarettes.

Recycling can be effective, c.80% of paper & cardboard and c.70% of glass in the UK is recycled, while in Norway 97% of all plastic drinks bottles are recycled. Where it becomes complicated with plastic is the thousands of different types, each with their own composition and characteristics. Does anyone really know what those numbered triangle stamps mean?

Even plastics within the same category often cannot be processed together, polyethylene terephthalate (PET#1) clear bottles are unable to be recycled with PET#1 clamshells (those plastic food containers that look like a clam), or even with green PET#1 bottles – here’s looking at you, Sprite…

This leads to plastic requiring sorting before it is recycled. This can either be handled at the facility, or by households, which will overly complicate the system and likely dissuade people. Sorting at the facility, requiring machines and human hand alongside collection and transport adds time and cost.

The UK uses around 36kg per person of plastics each year and we recycle just over 40% of this. While this is better than the post-consumer number of 5% in the US (after China decided in 2018 it would no longer import their recyclables), we are far behind the sleek system in Norway, demonstrating that when it hits the bottom line, industry will step up.

The Norwegian government introduced a tax on plastic, glass and paper/cardboard producers, depending on their collective level of recycling. If this collective rate is over 95%, then they are all exempt from the tax. A system, like others in Europe such as Germany or Belgium, is used, deposits are paid by consumers at purchase and then refunded upon return. The plastics industry has hit the 95% mark every year since 2011. They must also use approved labels, bottle tops and glue to simplify the process.

In 2019, virgin plastic became cheaper than its recycled counterpart for the first time, ironically due in part to requirements for recycled plastic content in products driving up its price.

Overall, the recycling system is overly complex and lacks central oversight, over 75% of UK adults do not know what happens to the plastic they recycle, or if it is even recycled. But there is proof that using regulation to push the responsibility onto industry is effective. We need more of this to counteract the plastics industry agenda that all plastic is recyclable, and therefore it’s okay we continue buying it. Well, the numbers clearly show that just because it can be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it is.

By Conor Barrett on 07/06/2022