Have we reached peak recycling?

5th May 2017 | Recycling

Last week was the first time that most of us will have ever heard of Henderson Island.

Part of the UK’s Pitcairn Islands group, the uninhabited World Heritage site lies 5,000km from the nearest human life in the middle of the South Pacific.

Despite its modest size – at just 5km wide – it boasts four endemic land birds, 10 endemic plants and one of the world’s best preserved raised coral atolls.

But it wasn’t the wildlife making the headlines earlier this month. Researchers have just found the island is also home to the highest density of plastic waste known anywhere in the world.

A recent study for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) recorded an estimated 37.7 million pieces of debris on the island, dumped on the shoreline by a circular ocean current called the South Pacific Gyre.

Alongside fishing equipment, much of the waste found was everyday consumer goods. Plastic cutlery, bottles, bags and straws were strewn across the sand – that’s if the items made it to the island in one piece. Small, fragmented particles made-up the majority of the waste, posing an even greater threat to life in and around the ocean.

Peak Recycling

It is the latest, striking reminder of the serious threat our throwaway society presents to the planet.

Most of us like to think that we care about the environment. We try to recycle as much as we can. We all agree the shopping bag charge is a good idea. And if David Attenborough believes cleaning up the plastic from our oceans is important, then so do we.

Unfortunately, the evidence washed up on Henderson Island suggests otherwise. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation we’re filling up our oceans with plastics at such an alarming rate that by 2050 there could be more mass in plastic than fish.

Disposable plastic is convenient – and in 2017 convenience is king. Here in the UK we produce 22m tonnes of household waste every year. Much of the waste we create isn’t recyclable. Coffee cups, nappies and pet food pouches are among a host of products that are all rejected by regular recycling processes.

On top of that, recycling rates are actually decreasing for the first time ever. An alarming amount of the waste that actually is recyclable still ends up in landfill, incinerators or the ocean.

Only a third of the 4.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging used for consumer products is recycled. We fail to recycle nearly half of the 35m plastic bottles used everyday. And we recycle just 1% of the 3bn takeaway cups we use every year.

For some time we have relied on it as the best way to ‘do our bit’ – but recycling may well have reached its peak.

There are a number of problems. Negligence is a big one. Many of us take an ‘out of sight, out of mind approach’ to our waste. We’re more interested in getting rid of an empty water bottle before getting on the train than thinking about where it might actually end up.

People are also confused about recycling. We simply don’t know what’s recyclable and what’s not. Three quarters of households aren’t recycling properly, either putting non-recycling in the recycling or vice versa.

Companies aren’t making it any easier either. We’re faced with more than 450 different eco labels on products as businesses desperately try to sell us their green credentials. Worse than that we’re being actively misled; the little circle of arrows was swiftly removed from a lot of coffee cups after news broke that they were only recyclable in specialist plants.

And once the waste has left our homes, funding restrictions mean that any further sorting to separate out recycling is very unlikely.

So what can be done?

Environmentalists talk about the three ‘r’s’ of managing waste – reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s pretty clear we all rely far too heavily on the third ‘r’: recycling systems that are reaching their limits. That’s got to change. More than that, we need to start looking at recycling as the last resort in waste management.

The easiest way to tackle waste is to stop creating it in the first place. Simply using less and reusing what we already have is the best way we can all take action. In an age of ‘connected homes’ and the ‘internet of things’ a reusable shopping bag can easily be overlooked for its simplicity and mundanity. But it’s time we started paying reusable serious attention.

Simple, everyday choices – from reusable water bottles and coffee cups to upcycled furniture and second-hand clothes – can transform our throwaway society into a reduce and reuse society. There’s no other way to dress this up: it really is that simple.

It’s up to companies to make these choices desirable. It’s up to governments to make these choices worth our while. But the choices remain ours and ours alone. Let’s start making the right ones.

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