Almost three-quarters of the plastic used in Britain could be supplied by plastic that’s been recycled, according to a new report.
But it would require the government to take serious action to develop the UK’s recycling industry, according to a new report by environmental charity and independent think tank, the Green Alliance.
Currently, the UK uses 3.3 million tonnes of plastic each year — and around two-thirds of that is sent abroad “with no guarantee that they will be recycled,” reads the report, entitled "Completing the Circle".
That’s because the UK, with the infrastructure as it is, is only able to recycle 9% of the plastic that is used. The majority of plastic waste ends up being burned, in landfill, or in our oceans.
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But, according to the Green Alliance, just collecting plastic and sending it abroad for other countries to recycle it doesn’t solve the pressing global issue of plastic pollution.
And one of the main problems? Single-use plastics.
“The government has promised leadership in tackling plastic pollution, but this is impossible while we continue to generate low-value plastics that cannot be used again,” says the report.
“The UK does not have an adequate system to capture, recycle, and re-use plastic materials,” the report adds.
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But as well as highlighting the scale of the problem, the report also outlines the scale of the opportunity it presents in developing a market that can make use of recycled materials, including plastic.
It details several steps that Britain could take to encourage an extra 2 million tonnes of plastic to be recycled domestically. It aims to develop what’s known as a circular economy — which means that materials that have already been used, instead of being thrown out and wasted, go back into the beginning of the loop, are processed and turned into new items, and used again.
“The prime minister has said that the UK will take a new and active role to help UK industry succeed,” says the report. “Supporting the development of secondary material markets is the perfect place to start.”
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The steps for government action outlined in the report include:
- Increasing taxes on products made from “virgin plastic” (plastic that hasn’t already been recycled);
- Increasing taxes on mandatory targets for using recycled plastic in packaging;
- Short-term support to kickstart the plastic reprocessing market;
- A fund to stabilise the market for companies investing in recycling plastic domestically.
According to the report, the UK’s current approach to dealing with our waste “focuses almost exclusively on recycling targets.”
The problem with targets for recycling, according to the Green Alliance, is that they apply to one stage of the cycle: pushing recyclables into the country’s waste collection system.
But just collecting the recyclable materials doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be used again. It also doesn’t encourage designing products that can be recycled easily and cheaply.
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The report adds that the “government is uniquely placed to address the market failures that have led to unnecessary reliance on virgin materials to the detriment of the environment, industry, and the economy.”
Peter Maddox, director of charity Wrap UK, which aims to achieve a circular economy, was quoted by the Guardian as saying we need to “create a world where resources are used sustainably.”
“To make this happen in the UK, we need to design circular systems for plastics and other materials that are sustainable both economically and environmentally,” he said. “This will require some fundamental changes from all of us.”
China has previously played a very significant role in the global used plastic industry. It imports more of the world’s used plastics than any other country, including from nations like the UK, the US, and Japan.
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But, in July 2017, China said it would be refusing to import other countries’ used plastics from 2018 — following a campaign against “yang laji” or “foreign garbage”.
Britain has previously leaned heavily on China for disposing of its used plastic — exporting around two-thirds of its used plastic to China, which amounts to more than 2.7 million tonnes of plastic waste to China and Hong Kong since 2012, according to Greenpeace.
Experts at the time warned it could “tip Britain’s already stretched recycling sector into crisis.”
And the Green Alliance report last week said that the message sent by China “is that we cannot rely on other countries to continue to take our low-quality waste material.”
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Meanwhile, dozens of British companies have indicated that they want to take action to reduce plastic pollution. In April, more than 40 retailers, government departments, trade associations, campaign groups, and more — together accounting for at least 80% of the plastic packaging supply chain — signed the UK Plastics Pact.
In signing, they agreed to a series of pledges that Wrap described as “world-leading”, including: to make 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable; and to make sure 30% of all plastic packaging includes recycled material.
The Green Alliance report referred to voluntary pacts like this as showing “that businesses want to use recycled material” but warned that “voluntary initiatives like the UK plastic pact…only thrive when supported by a credible prospect of government regulation in industry does not deliver.”
Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on improving life on land and life below water, and creating communities and cities that are sustainable. You can join us by taking action here, including to call on governments and business leaders to say no to single-use plastics.