What happens to the plastic you recycle? Researchers lift the lid

2nd September 2020 | Recycling

The recycling way in which plastic recycling is handled in the UK carries the potential for the next big scandal. While the government’s statutory guidance is supposed to clarify who is responsible, our research suggests that what happens to plastics we believe to be recycled in the UK is in reality quite obscure. Each council in the UK contracts different companies for the disposal and recycling of household waste, so the rules for residents in different areas vary. But you probably separate recyclables before filling your recycling bin and expect that waste (except when it’s black) to be recycled.

Meanwhile, manufacturers and retailers have pledged to reduce single-use plastics by redesigning their products and using more recycled materials, as well as making different materials easier to separate. There’s no legal obligation for companies in the UK to separate multiple types of recyclable waste when it’s discarded, but many do it anyway.

What happens to the plastic you recycle

The success of all our efforts to recycle as much plastic as possible relies on the system working. So where does it all go wrong?

We sifted through countless reports from businesses and local government bodies, as well as news stories and dozens of interviews with people at waste management companies, including one whistleblower. What we discovered revealed several inconsistencies about recycling in the UK. A government briefing paper from March 2020 state that 91% of the five million tonnes of plastics used in the UK each year is “sent towards treatment”. This does not mean it is actually recycled, just that it went to a waste management company. Even so, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that the recycling rate for single-use plastics was 29% in 2018.

A 2018 report by the Local Government Association found only one-third of plastics collected from households can be recycled, due to contamination, low-grade and mixed materials and technical difficulties. The National Audit Office, an independent body responsible for auditing government departments, claimed in 2018 that there was a sixfold increase in exports of packaging material for recycling abroad between 2002 and 2017. Exports accounted for half of all packaging reported as recycled in 2017. So what happened to all of it?

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