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Response to comments by UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on recycling

The prime minister has said that plastic recycling “doesn’t work” and “is not the answer” to threats to global oceans and marine wildlife.

Answering questions ahead of the COP26 climate change summit, he also said reusing plastics “doesn’t begin to address the [pollution] problem”.

We believe what he said was right, but also wrong — and we’re going to explain why. Starting with the sentiments we agree on, then where we differ, and finally, our triple-tiered action plan for a more sustainable future.

Boris Johnson prepares for talks at COP26. Photograph: Hollie Adams/EPA

Our problem with plastic

The US and UK produce more plastic waste per person than all of the other major countries, according to a recent study. Currently, more than half of what the UK government says is recycling is being exported to countries like Turkey & Malaysia, which lack adequate recycling infrastructure to deal with it. So some of the plastic ends up being illegally burnt, dumped or leaching into our ecosystems — rivers and seas. This is also a humanitarian health problem. Especially for waste pickers — usually women — who sort through the toxic plastic waste for less than 4 pence a kilogram.

So what happens to the remaining half?

Well, an investigation by UK’s Channel 4 show ‘Dispatches’ revealed that 11 per cent of UK household waste (like yoghurt pots, plastic trays) labelled as recyclable is actually sent to incineration plants. Essentially, these plants burn plastic to capture energy but still generate harmful greenhouse gasses, like CO2.

Unlike glass, aluminium and other metals, plastic isn’t infinitely recyclable. Instead, the quality of plastic downgrades each time it gets recycled — otherwise referred to as ‘downcycling’. This means that it’s very unlikely for a plastic bottle to be used, broken down, and entirely recycled without adding new plastic to make it durable and safe enough to use again.

Recycling doesn’t solve overconsumption, but it certainly helps mitigate the effects. Plastic is made almost entirely from fossil fuels, so we really need to reduce our usage to help tackle climate change and stop plastic from polluting our oceans.

Recycling does work

Recycling just one aluminium can, saves enough energy to power a TV for 2 hours. The British Plastics Federation also claims that it takes up to 75% more energy to produce a non-recycled plastic bottle over the recycled alternative.

Talk about bad timing, Boris

The biggest climate conference in the world, COP26, is less than a week away. This year’s focus is “taking collective action & collaboration” to set a path towards reaching net-zero carbon emissions. But some feel these comments from the leader of the host nation have already undermined years of efforts.

The chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), Lee Marshall, took to Twitter to make the following comments.

As the top 100 companies are reportedly responsible for over 71% of global emissions, you might ask what is the point? But here it is. Because small steps taken by a great many people are already influencing change.

Recycling has grown exponentially over the past decade and is one of the most popular and relatable climate actions people can take. People want to live more sustainable lifestyles and not feel their actions are damaging the environment. So to be told that recycling can be a waste of time surely also spreads fear, uncertainty and doubt around the effectiveness of other climate actions.

If we look at how individuals contribute to carbon pollution, it’s our fossil-fueled cars, a lack of insulation in our homes, and food wastage that are the heavy hitters. But crucially, recycling helps to reduce waste, minimising all the stuff that gets sent to landfills or polluting our oceans.

If we all stopped recycling overnight, then it’s the environment that would pay a hefty price. But so would we, through higher taxation, as local authorities would be forced to clean up the mess.

Plastics aren’t going away

Plastics have a vital role in the protection of products, healthcare, and food and drink items. While it is essential to switch to more sustainable materials, it will not be possible to totally eradicate plastic because it remains the most suitable for many applications.

Recycling helps to limit climate change, reduce pollution and create jobs. It’s good for people, the planet and our pockets. So we need governments to back innovation and support businesses, rather than making misinformed claims about the effectiveness of recycling.

Our Action Plan:

Think big. Invest heavily and legislate to create a more circular economy. Support initiatives that educate and empower consumers and rebuild public trust.

Vote with your feet. Brands should realise they will be rewarded for creating more sustainable, recyclable products. Ensure that local authorities can and will deal with them responsibly, instead of making notional claims about the recyclability of their packaging.

Ask yourself, do I actually need this? As consumers, we must continue to educate ourselves to make more mindful purchases. At the end of the day, simply use less stuff.

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