What REALLY happens to our recycling?

We all like to feel like we’re playing our part in working towards a greener future. But at a time when 100 of the biggest companies are responsible for 70% of all global carbon emissions, it can feel deflating to hear that when you just spent 15 minutes correctly organising your recycling.

The UK produces more waste per person than almost any other country and our government claims it recycles 50% of all plastic packaging produced. This isn’t true and in reality only 10% of all plastic is recycled in the UK.

It’s no wonder when each local council has separate, seemingly unadvertised rules for recycling. For example, in Brighton, East Sussex (where we have a Green Party MP) the council only accepts plastic ‘bottles’. Any other shape or form of plastic is not accepted and reliant on schemes available at supermarkets and local stores, causing accessibility issues for recycling. It is crucial we know our local rules as contaminating recycling bins with ‘un-recyclable’ materials can cause the whole lot to be incinerated and not recycled.

So what happens to it after I put it out?

Thousands of tonnes of our household plastic packaging end up in incinerators that cause air pollution, noise, smells, litter, and traffic, mostly in impoverished areas. A lot also goes to landfills, leaking toxic chemicals into our environment.

Well over half of the plastic packaging the UK government claims is recycled (the equivalent of three and a half filled Olympic swimming pools every single day) is sent abroad, most of it ironically going to countries with very low recycling rates.

The government claims all of this plastic gets recycled, but in reality we have no way of knowing how much truly gets recycled abroad.

UK ‘recycling’ has been found on the streets of Turkey and Malaysia, causing not just devastation to wildlife but also the people and communities that live there. There are reports of UK plastic being burned in the open air abroad, causing breathing difficulties and further health implications for the locals.

So should I continue to recycle?

Yes! The 10% that is actually recycled still makes a difference. Unfortunately, governments worldwide still put an emphasis on people recycling rather than solving the real issue: reducing the production of single-use plastic packaging. We cannot recycle our way out of this climate emergency, but in the meantime we can hold our local councillors accountable for the schemes available to us at a local level. Write to your MP and ask them if they know where their recycling goes. Ask them to expand the materials they recycle. Sign petitions so the government is forced to discuss climate change more than they would like.

What else can I do?

The issue facing us isn’t our willingness to recycle it is that there are fundamentally too many single-use plastic items being produced. Reducing the amount of single-use plastic we buy is one of the only sure-fire ways to reduce the amount of non-recycled recyclables. There are also plenty of creative ways to recycle or up-cycle your plastic waste, such as making ‘bottle-bricks’ or exploring what local community hubs will take.

Sign the petition to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2026 here.