Is there any point in recycling?

8th July 2019 | Recycling

Lots of people wonder whether it’s really worth their time and effort to separate, wash and store recyclable materials – especially if it takes more energy to recycle, or if the plastics sent for recycling and end up in overseas landfill. The truth is, the issue is complex, and even experts can’t agree on the economic and environmental benefits of recycling. There are four popular arguments, typically used by organisations and individuals to promote recycling: that is it reduces landfill waste, that it saves public money, that it creates jobs and that it encourages consumers to reduce waste in the first place. Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Images of putrefying waste in landfill sites, generating greenhouse gas emissions and polluting the environment, are one of the most compelling reasons for recycling. The 1999 European Landfill Directive set targets to reduce biodegradable waste, and in response the UK government increased tax on landfill disposal, introducing an escalating duty, which currently sits at £88.95 per tonne.


Then, in 2003, the Waste and Recycling Act established kerbside collection of recyclable materials. Rising levels of recycling and incineration, as well as the escalating landfill tax, have certainly reduced the proportion of waste dumped on landfill sites in the UK.

But the National Audit Office revealed that some of the plastics that residents separate for recycling are being exported overseas, to places such as Malaysia and Vietnam, where there are insufficient checks to ensure this material is actually recycled. The industry is also facing investigation for fraud and corruption, over these matters. So it could be that millions of tonnes of UK recycling is simply ending up in landfill in other parts of the world.

Part of the problem is that there are limited facilities to recycle mixed plastics in the UK. It costs a lot of money to separate and recycle different types of plastic, using specialist machinery. But there is infrastructure for plastic bottle recycling in the UK, which is why many council schemes historically only collected this type of plastic.

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