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The plastic waste dilemma

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The plastic you throw in your recycling bin might not go through the positive process of recycling back into something unique. The UK is allegedly not using its government’s statutory guidance in all of the right ways. Councils in the UK contract various companies for the recycling and disposal of waste. Each of the companies has its own “rules.” There isn’t any legal obligation for these companies to separate that different types of waste. So, what’s happening to our plastics?

The stats

There are a few recycling inconsistencies in the country. Supposedly over 90 percent of the five million tons of thrown-away plastic is sent for treatment. “Sent towards treatment” doesn’t mean the plastic was actually recycled. It means it went to a waste management company.

There is no way to tell what is actually being recycled, but it is true that only 1/3 of plastics sent to these centers can actually be recycled. Some are contaminated, others are low-grade, and some simply have technical difficulties.

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The National Audit Office said there was a dramatic increase in the exporting abroad of packaging material for recycling between 2002 and 2017. Where did all of it go? Was it recycled at all?

Selling the issues

One big problem is that some businesses claim themselves to be recycling companies, yet they sort the waste then sell it. The plastic waste is often sold via brokers who send it to unknown destinations. Many of these companies refuse to tell anyone where the plastic actually goes.

The UK actually exports much of its plastics to other countries. Countries like Malaysia, Egypt, and Turkey receive their plastics. This is because these countries don’t have their own plastic recycling plants. China no longer imports any type of waste. Some of these products are dumped or burned. In 2019, the UK exported one-half a million tons to other countries. What happens when the plastic leaves the country is up to its new destination.

The materials involved in plastic waste are confusing to some companies and people. The TetraPaks, cartons with orange juice in milk in them, need a specialized way of recycling that many of these places don’t have. These drink cartons must be exported. Once they’re in the hands of someone else, only their cardboard can usually be recycled.

The pandemic impact

COVID-19 hasn’t helped the process of recycling in the UK. Disposable masks, PPE, and single-use plastics have dramatically increased during the pandemic. Online shopping increases the amount of packaging. The problem is that recycling in some developing countries is on the decrease or has halted. These factors increase the amount of plastic waste that the UK exports. This could mean more is being dumped than is being recycled.

How to fix the problems?

Many people believe these issues can be solved if exporting plastic is forbidden without knowing it will be recycled. The first step is alerting the public to the problem before the government needs to step in.

There are many different ways to recycle plastic. The chemical and mechanical processes vary greatly. Most of these processes require that the plastic waste is separated by type. Some of these processes allow the breakdown of mixed and contaminated plastics. The UK should build an integrated plastics recycling facility to handle all of these variations of recycling.

The leftover waste would be burned in an incinerator. This would help generate energy while safely getting rid of waste. It might not be the way many people want to solve the recycling issues, but it would be an improvement from most of this plastic ending up in a landfill.