Plastic Recycling “doesn’t work” says PM – is he right?

By jooakes 4th November 2021

Boris Johnson told First News readers that plastic recycling “doesn’t begin to address the problem. You can only recycle plastic a couple of times, really… We’ve all got to cut down on our use of plastic. I think that’s the only answer… If people think we can recycle our way out of the problem, I think we’ll be making a huge mistake. We need to reduce.”

So, do the experts agree with anything he said?

“I don’t disagree with everything he said,” says Professor Stefan Krause from the University of Birmingham. He’s part of the Birmingham Plastics Network, a team of more than 40 experts looking at how we can make the future of plastics sustainable. “The pledge that he made for reducing our consumption of plastic goods, that is going in the right direction. He’s correct that recycling isn’t a solution alone but, like every complex problem, there are no simple solutions. To say that recycling doesn’t matter is very dangerous because it definitely has to be part of a mix of solutions. We can’t avoid using plastic, so to just say not to use plastic seems to really over-simplify the problem.”

Simon Ellin from the Recycling Association told us that people in the recycling industry “were aghast at the language” the PM used, but that “he was right that it’s preferable not to produce plastic in the first place.”

Ellin says that the PM’s comments were “completely opposite to Government policy. The Government has produced a very ambitious waste strategy that has recycling right at the heart of it, and wants to move from 45% recycling to 65% by 2035.” He’s also confident that we will get to “significantly more than 65%” when the Government introduces a bottle return scheme and makes sure that all local councils will collect plastic film for recycling

“I think his comments were really damaging,” says Professor Mark Miodownik, a materials engineer at UCL. “Although recycling isn’t perfect in the UK, it’s actually much better than most other places in the world. Recycling is the best way to deal with the packaging that comes into our homes. We recycle our paper and our metals; we are going to recycle our plastics, that’s the future.”

“It took decades to educate people to recycle, so we need to maintain that rather than throwing it away,” says Krause. “It’s a very dangerous message that recycling is not useful. In this country we collect 40- 50% of our plastic waste; that’s not bad. Unfortunately only 10% of it ever gets recycled [in the UK]. So we could improve it a lot if we actually recycled the waste that gets collected in this country. That of course requires an investment in infrastructure to do that.”

One person who is on the PM’s side is Dr Matt Wilkins, a biologist and educator based in the US. “I completely agree with him on this issue,” he told us. “Recycling is a necessary, but deeply flawed, last resort. The three Rs of sustainability are reduce, reuse, and recycle, in order of impact. Focusing on recycling is like focusing on paper towels for cleaning up a kitchen that’s flooding.

Instead, we should focus on turning off the tap and reducing the flood. Yes, we should recycle plastic, but we should put most of our effort into addressing the source. Right now, it’s really cheap for companies to produce new plastic. If plastic were more expensive to make (through a tax on virgin plastic) or if companies had a responsibility to reclaim and reuse plastic-containing products at the end of their life, we would see a lot less plastic in the environment.”

Krause also thinks that dealing with the source of all our plastic waste is a bit overlooked. “The other thing we need to look at as a society is how we deal with the plastic that is already in our environment. People are looking at how to clean up plastic in the ocean, but I hope that as a society we can start to look closer to the source, how we can intercept that rather than cleaning up right at the far end of the problem. If we could get that message across, that would make quite a difference.”

We also spoke to Adam Herriott, a recycling specialist at the charity WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme), to ask what the answer is to the global plastic problem. “There is no one single answer,” he told us. “Recycling is part of the answer to the problem, but only one piece of a complicated jigsaw. We need to stop using single-use plastics (such as carrier bags and plastic bottles) as soon as possible. And we need to look at alternatives to some plastics, but these also have huge environmental impacts.

Glass is much heavier than plastic, which means fewer items can be transported without using more fuel/energy, and the carbon footprint of a paper bag is greater than a plastic bag. And, sometimes, particularly with some foods, using no packaging can mean items get damaged and produce food waste, which is much worse in environmental terms than plastic. That’s why we need to phase out problematic plastics, and use the useful plastics more responsibly. Recycling has a role to play in a role to play in that – today, and in the future.”

Herriott stresses that reducing and recycling are both important. “Nine in ten people routinely recycle and it’s really important that we continue to do so, as recycling means we can use the plastics from old bottles again, which can be sold to make new bottles, or other items like school benches and sports kits. But we absolutely need to stop using plastic so much and on everything. So buying fruit and vegetables loose in the supermarkets means we use less plastic. Using one of the refill stations that are appearing in shops means we use less materials. We can all make changes, like taking our lunch to school in a lunchbox, not wrapped in clingfilm.”

In researching this article, two claims cropped up a lot: that recycling plastic uses more energy than making new plastic, so companies don’t want to do it, and that the quality of recycled plastic is worse than new plastic. But they’re both false.

“The average energy saving is 75% when producing plastic from recycled sources as opposed to virgin,” says Ellin. “And it depends on the polymer [type of plastic], but you will save between 1.1 and 3 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of plastics by using recycled materials instead.”

Ellin also says that nowadays you can’t tell the difference in quality between new and recycled plastic. “Coca-Cola’s bottles are 100% recycled,” he says, although that’s only true for bottles that are 500ml or less. “They wouldn’t be producing bottles with 100% recycled content if they didn’t look the same.”

“He’s right,” says Miodownik. “When you get a recycled plastic shampoo bottle or drinks bottle, that plastic is as good as the virgin stuff. But the stuff that doesn’t make it that far is lost in the system at the moment and ends up being burnt. And there’s quite a lot of that stuff, for lots of reasons. One is that a lot of plastic packaging is all mixed up and we can’t unmix it with the mechanical process.”

When Miodownik talks about mechanical recycling, that’s the way we deal with most plastic now. It means that the plastic gets melted, crushed up and washed, without changing its chemical structure. “But that process is inefficient and has lots of losses involved in it,” Miodownik says. “But in the future, we’ll collect the plastic, break it down into its chemical components and re-make new plastic. That’s exciting because it means much less waste.”

Because lots of types of plastic are mixed together and have other things like colouring in them, not all of it can be recovered through mechanical recycling, but the work of Miodownik and others could mean we won’t have to sort our plastics.

“Plastic is these long-chain carbon molecules, and you have those in your body too, such as proteins,” he says. “But when you have waste cells in your body, we have these things called enzymes that basically eat them up and turn them back into fuel for new cells. We don’t have enzymes that eat plastics, but we are developing them in the lab. So imagine a future where instead of plastic packaging going to a recycling firm and getting melted down, it goes into what looks more like a brewery. And in there are little micro-organisms that eat plastic. The big problem with mechanical recycling is you have to sort your plastics, and it’s a real pain. What we really want is to put all plastic in this big tub, enzymes eat it away, ‘nom nom nom’, and out comes raw ingredients for new plastics.”

He says there’ll still be a need to add some stuff into this mix but, instead of using fossil fuels, we can use waste bits of plants, such as stalks, that are left over from farming. “That’s exactly the stuff that turns into oil if you leave it for a million years; we just cut short the process!”

Although there will still be some losses, Miodownik is confident that new techniques “will make plastic recycling as efficient as metal or paper recycling. So, instead of saying recycling doesn’t work, which is just not true, the prime minister should say we are world leaders in this technology – and we need to get even better.”


First appeared in First News, Issue 803, 5th November 2021


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