Unraveling The Plastic Mystery
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year or so, you’ve probably heard that our oceans are infested with plastic waste and you may be wanting to do your bit to fix this problem. I certainly have been trying to make a few changes (check out my Insta page for some of my product swaps) but more than that, I really wanted to understand a bit more about the industry and what the underlying issues are – yes, I am that geek – as I do think that understanding the problem makes us much better at fixing it.
In the UK in 2017, we produced 11 million tonnes of plastic waste and only about two thirds of that was recycled. There are a few reasons for this with the simplest being that we, the consumers, don’t bother to recycle our plastic waste or aren’t disposing of our waste correctly to ensure it is recycled! The other reasons, however, are to do with how cost effective it is to recycle certain types of plastic and the logistics of recycling it.
Read on for some of the reasons behind this problem and how we, as consumers, can become a part of the solution.
Thermosetting plastics are very difficult to recycle as once they are moulded into a shape and allowed to cool, they won’t change shape again once reheated. In order to recycle plastics, we need to be able to melt them down to turn them into something new and so thermosetting plastics cause a problem. There are some chemical processes that can be used to get around this, but unfortunately, they are too costly to make them a viable option so for the purposes of what we’re discussing today, they are essentially not recyclable. Typical household items that could be made from thermosetting plastics are:
- Plug sockets
- Doors & windows
- Parts of TVs, computers and other electronic equipment
- Gardening items
- Cooking utensils
One of the main issues with plastic food packaging is that different types of plastic must be separated before they can be recycled. Quite often, our food is packaged up in different materials or types of plastic – think the container and lid of a yoghurt pot – and these need to be separated before they can be recycled. The issues linked to separating plastic types come in a variety of forms:
- Plastic punnets used for fruit and veg are often made from 3 different polymers, creating a problem.
- The black plastic typically used for microwave meals, as another example, is not easily detected by automated sorting equipment at recycling plants because of the pigmentation, making it difficult to sort.
- Plastic bags cause additional issues as they get caught in conveyor belts and spinning wheels designed to separate other waste types. They actually have to be removed by hand at the very beginning of the sorting process.
Sorting plastics adds an additional burden and cost, so food packaging often ends up in landfill even though it can be recycled.
Where our Waste Goes to be Recycled:
Historically, much of the UK’s plastic waste was sent to countries like China for recycling (how environmentally friendly this is, given the carbon emissions this produces is an entirely different issue!). According to HMRC’s UK Trade Info website, in 2016, we sent 400,000 tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong. In fact, since 1992, China has imported around 45% of the world’s plastic waste. China got cheap plastic to use for creating exportable goods and we got a cheaper solution for our waste: win, win.
Given the amount of waste countries like China were receiving, it put them in a position to be very picky about the quality of waste they would accept. Starting in January of this year, China put a ban on the imports of millions of tonnes of plastic waste and this is creating a major issue. As an alternative, plastic waste has been ending up in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam whose track records with marine pollution aren’t great and unfortunately, the fear is that this may lead to an increase of plastic waste ending up in our oceans.
So, we’re starting to understand the underlying issues with plastics and how we dispose of them. Now, what can we do about it. Quite simply, we can follow the waste hierarchy:
Ideally, we want to start by reducing the amount of plastic waste that exists in the first place. Start by swapping out some of the biggest single use plastic offenders.
- Check out alternatives to plastic straws from companies like EcoStrawz. They even have an option made from wheat!
- Swap out single use coffee cups & water bottle with a stainless-steel option. I love Aussie brand, Frank Green, for their colourful SmartBottles and SmartCups. If you’re UK based, get in touch as we have some in stock leftover from our Plastic Free July campaign.
- Plastic bags are one of the worst offenders. Taking your own bag with you is one of the easiest ways to cut down on your plastic use. Weaver Green are fast becoming a favourite of mine and offer a range of stunning products including bags, cushions and rugs that are made entirely from recycled plastic bottles. Technically these guys could fit nicely under reducing, reusing and recycling!
The more consumers push back, the more producers will have to take notice and come up with alternatives to plastic.
Now if you’ve been trying to reduce the amount of plastic you use, you will no doubt be aware just how difficult it can be. Reusing what you already have is still a step in the right direction.
- Why not take reusable containers with you to the local market? If your local supermarket doesn’t support you bringing your own, flag it with the management. The more people that request change, the more likely we’ll get a positive response. Check out Zero Waster for shops allowing you to refill your own bags and containers across the UK.
- How much plastic do you have in your bathroom? Why not use a glass soap dispenser rather than plastic? Take at looks at ours on Insta. Happy to deliver within the UK if you’d like one too!
Finally, when you’ve exhausted the first 2 options, make sure to recycle.
- First and foremost, you need to know what is recycled and how to do it. Every council is different so check out this site from gov.uk to find out what items your council will recycle.
- If you do decide to buy a plastic product, check how easily it can be recycled. Try to purchase easily recycled plastics like PET. More info here.
In my opinion, education is essential and the only way we are going to fix our plastics problem. This industry needs so much more transparency to help people make the right decisions so start sharing and please do let us know what things you’re doing as well.
Want some more info or just want to get in touch? E-mail us – we’d love to hear from you!