Recycling plastic is not a cheap business, I’ve visited over twenty recycling plants in the UK and US for TPP in order to gain a better insight to this part of the process. Unfortunately, I have been shocked by how much of the plastic we think we are recycling ends up going into landfill. The other thing that has shocked me, especially in the States, is how many recycling units are struggling to even survive, despite the fact that they are getting increasing amounts of waste to recycle.
The problem is two fold, contamination and the falling prices of the base commodity. Plastic is derived from oil, as the price of oil drops so it becomes cheaper and cheaper to produce virgin plastic over recycled plastic. In the US a tonne of recycled plastic has dropped in value from around $400 to around $180. That trend alone has resulted in California losing around 400 recycling plants, which have had to close due to lack of profitability. The other problem is aluminium. There is a surplus on the planet, and this easily recyclable metal, which helps to prop up recycling plants, is also causing a drop in profits.
Contamination is the other issue, if plastic arrives at a recycling plant still with traces of the product within it, or even with certain labels stuck on, it is rejected. Cleaning all recyclable materials is essential.
Likewise here in the UK recycling through our councils has grown at a phenomenal rate, but there are huge inefficiencies that make recycling barely profitable; indeed, in many council regions, a loss making excercise. So what can we do to help?
- Sort your recyclables carefully. One of the major issues is bins having the wrong things in them, these will often not be able to be sorted and end up in landfill.
- Make sure your recyclables are clean, especially plastic, removing contaminants of any form slows the recycling process, costs more money and can result in a lot of cases of recyclable materials being rejected and added to landfill.
- Use less plastic.
What are councils and governments going to do? The spectre of fines for putting the wrong stuff in bins is looming in some regions, but more interestingly deposit return schemes are also on the horizon. This is something that SAS are strong advocates of and it looks likely that in the very near future we will have a scheme in place across the UK. It makes sense, if there is a reward for every bottle or can we deposit, we’ll recycle.
Of course the bottom line is we need to use less plastic in the first place, the movement has to trend away from this material to genuinely reusable alternatives. As we delve deeper it becomes more and more obvious that beach cleans are great, recycling great but stopping using plastic in the first place, especially in single use applications is the only real answer.