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As the UK hosts the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the worlds focus turns to reducing emissions to combat the devastating effects of climate change.
Despite recent press coverage, industry experts J&B Recycling advocate that recycling has a hugely important role to play in reducing emissions.
Mark Penny, Commercial Manager, says “In an ideal world we would reduce plastic demand. But this is going to be difficult as population and incomes rise around the world. Recycling is arguably the most straightforward way to cut emissions.”
According to recent research, recycling all plastic waste would reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions to 4.9 gigatons in 2050, or 25% from business-as-usual emissions.
So, if recycling still has an important role to play in the long-term sustainability of our planet, are we taking it seriously enough? Mark, who has worked in the waste management industry for over 25 years, thinks not!
He says, “I find it infuriating that rather than working with well-established, UK-wide kerbside schemes to understand the recycling process and adapt products and packaging accordingly so that they can easily be recycled, companies continue to produce products and packaging that are difficult to recycle. Furthermore, they not only claim that it can be recycled, but positively promote it as being ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’, by creating or partnering with a specialist recycling method that isn’t suitable for kerbside schemes.
“I really question the sense in this. These products must be dropped off at dedicated collection points or posted back to the specialist schemes, which I imagine comes with a fairly heavy carbon footprint. As an alternative, kerbside recycling bin collections operate throughout the UK. The bin wagons are going to every household to collect recycling waste anyway, so essentially it does not create extra carbon to include them.”
Then there is the issue of ‘Wishcycling’, which Mark not only sees in the waste that is delivered to J&B Recycling’s Materials Recovery/Recycling Facilities (MRFs) across the North East of England, but also in the attitude and practices of the people around him.
“It is obvious to me that people aren’t getting the message about what can and cannot be recycled. This is probably because they don’t understand how the recycling process works. I harp on about it all the time to my nearest and dearest, but even my mum and my wife don’t fully understand.
“My mum made me a bacon sandwich the other day. I watched her put the fat back into the packet, cover it with the film lid, and then put it in her recycling bin. I couldn’t believe it! When I questioned her, her response was that “someone will sort it out at the other end”.
“On another day I was at the Household Waste Recycling Centre dropping some stuff off with my “better” half, who put some unwanted textiles into the textile bank. So far, so good! However, some were still packaged in original plastic wrapping. Her reply when challenged: “it keeps you in a job”. Give me strength!
“From what we see at our MRFs, this attitude is widespread. Either people don’t understand, or they don’t care and ultimately people think that the ‘recycling fairies’ will sort it out.”
The recycling process is made simple for the public, but behind the scenes it in fact a very complicated, high-tech process. At J&B Recycling’s MRFs in the North East of England, over 110,000 tonnes of kerbside recyclables are processed annually. To put that into context that’s the equivalent of 300+ bin wagons per week!
This waste must be sifted through and separated into different products that can be sent off and processed into something new. It is far easier when materials aren’t contaminated, otherwise the recycling process is hindered or in some instances doesn’t work. To achieve this sorting of materials, a combination of very sophisticated machines are used, with some manual interventions.
Mark says, “Our machines use a range of technologies to sort and separate materials. Huge magnets are used to separate metals, lasers are used to identify different types of papers, plastics and cardboard, which are then separated using jets of air. And of course, there is a human element to oversee and quality check the process.”
Admittedly though, there are some limitations. Where products or packaging are made from different materials, it is often impossible to identify and separate the materials in the recycling process.
“Tubs of crisps are a classic example. In some cases, the packaging is created using a mixture of fibre, plastic and metal (composite packaging), which can’t be separated at an MRF. What complicates it further is that other brands, particularly supermarket own-brands, are made from a single material that can be recycled. So people really do need to check the labels to see what can and can’t be recycled.
“The logos of some of the specialist schemes that people can send their packaging off to also incorporate the well-known recycling logo, so at a quick glance it could be easy to misinterpret the meaning and people throw it away in their kerbside recycling bin anyway.”
There are lots of examples of companies who have released products without understanding or checking how they can be recycled in the real world rather than the boardroom, lab etc.
“Recently a new yoghurt product came to market with a black plastic lid, which couldn’t be recycled because the optical sorters used in kerbside recycling processes can’t identify what the type of plastic it is when the plastic is coloured black.
“To their credit, the company in question changed the lid to a slightly different colour that still looked black and made a big fuss on the packaging about how it was now recyclable. But clearly they hadn’t consulted with actual industry experts as it still wasn’t recoverable in the majority of kerbside processes. So more recently they have (quietly) moved to a clear plastic lid with a black paper circle on one side, which is now compatible with kerbside schemes.”
All of this highlights Mark’s utter frustration.
“I think if the companies who produce the products and packaging actually consulted with the waste management industry in the beginning, then a lot more could be recycled, more effectively in the real world.
“It seems to me that we are in a position where the waste industry is told what it has to do. Businesses, and potentially policymakers, have this “we have created this, now deal with it” attitude. Where in fact, we could see a much bigger impact with results happening much more quickly if companies designing, manufacturing and producing products and packaging, consulted with, and worked more closely with our industry rather than consultants – most of whom have probably never been inside a MRF or waste reprocessing facility!
“At the moment you have companies under pressure to look green. Rather than changing their practices, they are introducing bespoke/specialist recycling schemes that potentially may have a much bigger carbon footprint… and they are being enabled to do this.
“The questions being asked is “Can it be recycled?” But in my opinion this question is short-sighted. Just because the answer is ‘yes’, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is better for the environment. No one seems to be considering the bigger picture.”