Over the past few weeks you may have spotted a now viral video pop-up on your social media feed. Featuring a wholesome, plucky young American, it begins – heretically – by asking us all to stop recycling.
The clip – produced by BuzzFeed – goes on via a series of factoids and now familiar pictures of the global plastic pandemic to reveal a seemingly incredible truth: that recycling is not, in-fact, a thing.
Well, it is a thing – but not anything like you thought it was a thing. In fact, as a UN report recently revealed, only 9 per cent of the world’s plastic waste has ever been recycled – with the majority (79 per cent) making its way to landfill and, increasingly, into the sea. Even today, in Europe we only recycle 30 per cent of plastic packaging.
Only 9 per cent of plastic waste has been recycled
We haven’t noticed this, though, as it isn’t British land or waters it’s been going into, but Asia’s. This is because up until last year, China was taking in two thirds of all the world’s plastic waste, including 2.7 million tons from the UK since 2012.
As is now becoming clear, however, the large majority of this recycling continues to sit there, leading to China’s decision to ban imports of foreign trash. This came into force in January, and has pushed waste management authorities across the developed world to the brink of capacity.
Nowhere to go
Again, as the BuzzFeed video explains, this is because there is simply no demand for recycled plastic goods – or very little demand anyway.
The cost of recycling plastic is high – much higher than for glass and metal – as plastic comes in all shapes, sizes and qualities, which must be sorted and processed differently. And unlike glass or metal (which can be recycled infinitely) plastic can also only be recycled two or three times.
Paper plates smeared in ketchup can’t be recycled, ditto pizza boxes
This is why, if you take a careful look on the back of the packets and cartons currently sitting in your kitchen, you will find ‘not currently recycled’ printed on a large proportion.
Added to this is the challenge that comes from households contaminating recyclable material, either by throwing non-recyclable items in with recyclable trash, or not cleaning it correctly.
That’s right: cleaning it correctly. Few us likely realise (including me until yesterday) that a paper plate with ketchup on it can’t be recycled, for example. Likewise every pizza box you have ever put in that big green box, or unwashed tetra pack.
Except into the ocean
So this is what China has been dealing with – or indeed not dealing with – as reports suggest that a significant proportion of the tonnes of trash the country has been accepting has been finding its way illegally into the sea.
And this, dear Good reader, is one of the central reasons we now have a plastic garbage patch three times the size of France – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – floating in between Asia and the US containing an estimated 80,000 tonnes of plastic.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is three times the size of France
This pales in comparison, though, to the estimated 1.5 to 2.4 million tonnes of plastic that makes its way in to seas via rivers each and every year. The GPGP is also only one of five global patches, with every ocean in the world now boasting its own.
China’s ban may also see global ocean pollution accelerate as poorer nations in South East Asia like Vietnam and Indonesia begin accepting more of our trash.
These countries, particularly Vietnam (the world’s fourth biggest plastic polluter), have even more questionable policies on waste management, with most dumped into heavily polluted rivers, and eventually the sea.
Reduce, reduce, reuse
As humanity’s growing plastic trash pile becomes harder to ignore, the inevitable truth of the situation is becoming increasingly clear: we must simply stop using plastic.
Single use plastics must be the first to go, and governments across the world are beginning to implement bans; from the EU, to states across the US to South East Asian nations now quite literally drowning in the world’s trash.
Single use plastics must be the first to go
In the consumer space movements are springing up highlighting our need to kick the plastic habit. These include zerowaste and unboxing – both of which are focussed on the mountains of packaging that fills our everyday lives.
Corporates and investors are starting to wake up too, with two of the world’s biggest culprits – Nestle and Coca-Cola – pledging to cut plastic use over the next seven years, in the UK at least.
Meanwhile innovate companies are working on biodegradable plastics as well as ingenious recycling solutions, including clothes from old carpets and fishing nets to corrugated board made from coffee cups that is becoming a viable solution to harder wearing plastic material.
Less plastic, more friends
Ultimately, however, our addiction to plastic will not be easy to kick. From playing almost no role in our daily lives little more than half a century ago, it now covers almost everything we eat and drink, and eliminating it will require a fundamental re-think of how we live our lives.
Rather than drinking our coffee on the go, for example, we will have to do so in cafes. Instead of gobbling sandwiches at our desk or scoffing take away pizza in front of the TV, we will have to eat from plates inside restaurants and eateries and make more of our own food at home.
And rather than buy shrink wrapped veg in supermarkets we will – like our grandmother’s before us – have to return to market stalls with our cloth bags. As for our cosmetics obsession, most of us could stand to lose a tub of wonder cream or three.
Kicking our plastic habit could yield more rewards than we can imagine
With this loss of comfort and convenience, though, may come a long lost sense of community.
From coffee over emails to coffee with friends, to lunch with colleagues inside re-instated canteens that were once the heart of every office. Visits to the market may yield new friendships, while we may all once again be on first name terms with the milkman.
Rather than an exercise in deprivation, scrapping our plastic habit and returning to a more sustainable way of life may yield more rewards than we can imagine.