Green Tau: issue 50

1st September 2022

There is no ‘away’ in a throw-away society 

We can go away on holiday to the sea side, to the mountains, to a tropical islands or a city of culture. We take away 3 from 5, or 99 from 100, and get a number. When we look away, we look in the  opposite direction. But where is away on a throw-away society?

It is said that if Henry VIII had had a plastic toothbrush it would still exist today – plastics take

400-500 years to biodegrade. In the UK we throw away in excess of 200 million toothbrushes every year. These end up in landfill, incinerators or in the ocean. As they degrade they release toxins into the water or – in the case of the incinerator – into the air. 

Plastic waste is a global issue even though most of it originates in the developed world. As plastic degrades it breaks into smaller and smaller pieces. These end up in the digestive systems of various creatures, but especially so in sea creatures, in the ice on remote mountains, and in the water we all drinks. Plastic particles can even transfer from mother to foetus through the placenta.  You cannot throw plastic away. It always goes somewhere!  There is nowhere where it can be ‘away’ from us. 

Terracycle and Colgate together offer a recycling scheme for plastic toothbrushes,  toothpaste tubes and caps, floss containers and packaging and electric toothbrush heads. So for any plastic toothbrushes etc that you are currently using, there is at least one means of ensuring that the ‘away’ to which they go is to be recycled into another product rather than polluting the environment meant. Colgate also sells a toothbrush made from 100% recycled plastic with 100% plant-based nylon bristles which maybe helping to close the loop on this product. Hopefully we can all act now – whether by using a recycled or a bamboo toothbrush – to prevent this ‘mound’ of ex-toothbrushes from continuing to grow 

One of the easiest plastics to recycle is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is the type of plastic used to make drinks bottles – type 1 plastic as marked inside the recycle triangle. This can be recycled to create another plastic bottle – an rPET bottle. You may be able to find rPET bottles used for Buxton Spa and Evian water and for Coca Cola but most bottles are still made from virgin PET. (PET plastic cannot be recycled indefinitely without the addition of a proportion of new plastic resin so recycling isn’t the complete answer).

It is estimated that an average of 35.8 million plastic bottles are used every day in the UK, but only 19.8 million are recycled (https://www.recyclenow.com/recycle-an-item/plastic-bottles). For a little more than half of PET bottles, ‘away’ means a new life as recycled plastic, but for the remainder ‘away’ may still be landfill, the incinerator or the ocean. 

For other plastics the recycling rates are not as rosey. HDPE plastic – high density poly ethylene – is widely used for plastic bags, milk bottles, shampoo and laundry bottles etc. Whilst it can be recycled into more bottles, drain pipes, plastic sheeting etc, only 12% of all plastic bags are recycled and 28% of milk and water bottles are recycled (https://www.plasticexpert.co.uk/plastic-recycling/hdpe-plastic-recycling/). 

Other plastics are even less likely to be recycled. Polystyrene for example – whilst it can be recycled, there are very few recycling plants (apparently there is one in Cardiff but none in London!) and no kerb side collections. Other plastics can be hard to recycle because they are a composite of several materials which are hard to separate – this has long been the case with coffee cups made from paper and lined with polythene. There are now an increasing number of recycling facilities for such cups. An optimistic estimate suggests that 1 in 25 disposable coffee cups are recycled (https://www.recycling-magazine.com/2019/10/01/reducing-coffee-waste/). But for most coffee cups ‘away’ means landfill, incinerator or the ocean.

Despite all these health threatening ‘aways’ which is where waste most plastic goes, we are still producing more and more new plastic every year. According to the OECD global plastics production doubled between 2000 to 2019 to reach 460 million tonnes. Much of this is used for packaging (146 million tonnes in 2015 (https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/plastic-production-by-sector)

It is a scary thought that there is no real ‘away’ where we can throw what we wish to discard. What happens to all the shoes, the clothes, the half empty paint tins and paint brushes, the punctured inner tubes and bike tyres, car tyres, shower curtains, kitchen sinks, soft toys, the leaky hot water bottle etc that we will throw throw away during our life times. Sometimes there be recycling options but not always and even then one wonders what the end product is. We have a foam mattress bought when we were first married. It is probably coming near to the end of its useful life as a mattress but I do not think there is any safe ‘away’ where we can send it. Were we buying that same mattress now I know we think and choose differently. 

Whenever we acquire new things, we need to consider what will be its destination when it is has ceased to be useful in its current formation. Can this pair of trainers be recycled even though it comprises several materials? Will it just end up as road fill? Can this polyester running shirt be recycled into a new shirt? Can this iron/ kettle/ printer be recycled, its metal,and plastic parts separated and reprocessed? 

Should this be solely our responsibility as consumers? The Extended Producer Responsibility is an approach that says that the manufacture must take on responsibility for their products when they re@ch their end of life. This would refurbishing and/ or recycling the product. Placing the responsibility manufacturer should encourage more sustainable designs and manufacturing processes.  Such policies are slowly be introduced in a number of countries. As a result of current legislation European manufacturers, including British ones, are responsible for taking back and recycling in all batteries, and waste electronics and electrical equipment – The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive is the European Community Directive or WEEE. 

I am hoping that such a scheme will be introduced for mattresses (and applied retroactively)