Tomorrow is World Refill Day. Refills are more sustainable than a constant flow of single use glass or plastic bottles – even if the latter are recycled (as opposed to reused). I noticed in one of our local cycle shops a refill point for bike cleaning liquid. Keeping your bike clean will keep it in working order for longer – ie improves its sustainability – so why not go further and make the process of keeping it clean more sustainable too?
This month saw the launch of FlexCollect, a 3 year trial project in which flexible – soft/ scrunchable – plastic will be part of the kerbside recycling collection made by local authorities. The first council taking part will be Cheltenham Borough Council.
HDPE and LDPE are widely used for packaging – plastic bags and wrappers, margarine cartons and milk containers – and both can be recycled. As with PET bottles closed loop recycling is possible but more often these plastics are recycled into none food items such as pipes, plastic ‘wood’ for outdoor furniture, recycling bins and rubbish bags. Clearly it would be better for the environment if all recycling were closed loop recycling as this is the best way of eliminating the use of oil to make virgin plastic.
Again ask companies whether they use recycled plastics and of not, what not.
NB the recycling of plastics is made much easier of the plastic is washed/ cleaned before it is put in the recycling bin. Dirty plastic can contaminate a whole batch sent for recycling .
If only 44% of plastic packaging waste is recycled, what happens to the other 56%?
Some will litter the streets and pavements, before being blown into hedgerows and trees, into waterways and out to sea. There it will break down into smaller and smaller bits until it is small enough to count as micro plastic (less than 5mm in length). Micro plastics have been found in the ice at both north and south Poles. They have infiltrated the food chain. They have even crossed the placenta from the mother to the foetus.
Some of this litter will be eaten by animals and birds almost certainly causing premature death. Some will go via domestic dustbins, public waste bins and commercial waste bins, into either landfill where again it will break down over time into micro plastic particles, or it will be burnt in an incinerator further adding to air pollution.
Most plastics can now be recycled especially as much plastic packaging is what is known as ‘soft plastic’. Soft plastics can be recycled at various supermarkets including the Coop and Amazon Fresh. To check what counts as soft plastic, the Coop has a good listing- https://www.coop.co.uk/environment/soft-plastics/packaging-list
An update from DEFRA reported that only 44% of the 2.5m tonnes of plastic packaging waste produced in 2021 was recovered for recycling. This compares with 73.6% for glass. (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/uk-waste-data/uk-statistics-on-waste )Plastic can seem harder to recycle because it comes in so many different categories each with its own recycling protocol. Greenpeace’s plastic survey – The Big Plastic Count – which starts tomorrow will collect data that can be used to ease/ resolve this problem. https://thebigplasticcount.com/
We have just invested in a Rework recycling box for all our otherwise un-recyclable plastic. We will continue to use our kerb side recycling bin for plastic pots and bottles, the soft plastic recycling facility at the Coop, toothpaste tubes at Boots, but this box will be for all the other plastics we cannot otherwise recycle. We can even use it for lateral flow test kits. It should reduce our landfill to nil.
Each week, here in the Borough of Richmond, our black recycling boxes with their mix of metal glass, metal and plastics are collected and taken away. What happens next?
The collected waste is transported to a materials recovery facility in Mansfield where iron and aluminium, glass and different plastics are extracted via various mechanisms including magnetic drums, weight and size sifting, infra red detection and hand sorting. Once sorted the recyclable plastic is compacted into bales and dispatched on the next stage of its recycling journey.
At the recycling facility in Leeds, the plastic waste is sorted according to the type of plastic – HDPE (high density polypropylene, PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – and according to the form of the plastic – bottles or tubs, semi rigid or film. From here the sorted plastic goes to reprocessing plants either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. The waste plastic is turned into either flakes or pellets which can then be used to make new plastic items, either totally or partially replacing virgin plastic.
From Richmond’s waste, PET bottles are recycled in the UK where they are reprocessed as new PET bottles. HDPE plastic (such as milk cartons) are sent to plants either in the UK or in Belgium where they are reprocessed into moulded items such as containers, pipes or packaging. The semi rigid pots, tubs and trays made of polypropylene (PP) are recycled either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe. The recycling process includes thoroughly cleaning the plastic to remove any contamination (you should still clean your plastic before putting it in the recycling bin). The recycled plastic are pelleted into a form that can be used to make imitation wooden items such as garden furniture. However new plants are being built which can produce food-grade recycled polypropylene (rPP).
“Packaging producer Berry is building a new polypropylene (PP) recycling facility in Leamington, United Kingdom, that will produce food-grade materials with a target purity standard of 99.9 percent..Packaging produced from this rPP material will result in 35 percent less CO2 emissions, [&] require 50 percent less water consumption” https://www.recyclingtoday.com/article/berry-uk-polypropylene-recycling-plant/
Soft plastics such as crisp packets, biscuit wrappers, breakfast cereal bags, frozen vegetables bags etc are not – at present -collected by local authorities. Most supermarkets will collect plastic carrier bags for recycling and an increasing number are now also making provision to collect and recycle all soft plastic packaging. These items are made from LDPE (low density poly ethylene). Being lightweight and flimsy they need different recycling equipment from that used for the denser more rigid HDPE. To recycle LDPE new recycling plants are being built.
“Yes Recycling is currently constructing a new facility in Glenrothes, to specialise in dealing with hard-to-recycle soft plastics – including cellophane, bread wrappers and film lids – which would previously have been added to landfill, burned or exported for processing… Financed in part with a loan from Triodos Bank, the new plant will be capable of processing 15,000 tonnes of soft plastic each year, giving the waste a new life by turning it into plastic flakes and pellets for manufacture, as well as a pioneering alternative to plywood, developed over the past 12 years, that can be used in construction.” https://www.triodos.co.uk/articles/2022/saying-yes-to-recycling—how-a-pioneering-new-facility-is-tackling-plastic-waste The recycling plant is co-owned by the Morrisons supermarket chain.
To close the loop, we should expect to be able to buy products in bottles and containers made of recycled plastic. As of September 2021 all plastic bottles of 500ml or less for Coca-Cola will be made of 100% recycled plastic and will continue to be fully recyclable.
Hellman’s squeezable mayonnaise bottles are also made of 100% recycled plastic whilst Persia laundry liquid bottles are made of 70% recycled plastic. Both brands are owned by Unilever.
As consumers we can ask producers to both supply products in recyclable packaging and ask that such packaging itself be made from recycled material. Equally we can seek out products that do not require additional packaging or that can be dispensed into refillable containers. This avoids the need to collect and recycle the packaging which – as can be seen above -can involved shipping waste over long distances and through various stages of processing.
Action 28: Find out about new recycling options. Did you know Superdrug will take and recycle blister packs used for pills and tablets? Did you know the Co-op will take and recycle all soft/ scrunchable plastics such as biscuit wrappers and crisp packets?
Become savvy. Give packaging a long, hard look. Is it necessary? Is it recyclable? Is there an alternative? Can you take your own packaging – be that a shopping basket, cloth bag or box?
There is little – if anything – that we consume that does not have a carbon footprint which is why when we seek to reduce our carbon footprint, we should be reviewing everything that we consume. And that includes the packaging. Whether what you buy comes in a plastic bag or a paper one, whether it comes in a plastic tray or a cardboard punnet, whether it comes in a plastic bottle or a glass jar, whether it is wrapped in tissue paper or bubble wrap – that packaging will have a carbon footprint. If the packaging is excessive or simply unnecessary, then we increase our carbon footprint with no gain or merit. Our aim should be to avoid unnecessary packaging and where packing is needed, to seek out packing that can – and will be – recycled.
1. Some packaging is necessary: imagine taking home a pint of milk with no packaging! Milk is usually sold in plastic or glass or tetra-pacs containers – and in fact all these can be recycled (although the loop for tetra-pacs is not yet fully closed), whilst glass milk bottles can be reused some 60 to 70 times before being recycled.
2. But some packaging is not. Do apples need to come in plastic bags (even if they are a compostable plastic substitute)? Loose fruit and vegetables can simply be picked up, weighed and popped into you own shopping bag/ basket.
3. For some items such as strawberries and raspberries, the packing prevents the items becoming damaged and potentially inedible . The carbon footprint of the packing may outweigh the carbon footprint of wasted food. Punnets are often made of PET plastic which can be fully recycled into a new punnet but the film on top is not so readily recycled – the Co op has just introduced a recycling scheme which accepts all scrunchable plastics.
4. Some packaging is excessive! Biscuits that come in a plastic tray inside a plastic sleeve, inside a cardboard box …. Refusing to buy such items is the best response – and can feeling very satisfying. You might instead make you own ‘up-market’ biscuits with zero packaging
5. Some packaging cannot be recycled such as polystyrene or, in the case of black plastic, is routinely incinerated/ sent to landfill because the recycling machinery finds black hard to detect!
6. But if fruit and vegetables can be bought packaging free, what about other things such as pasta or dried fruit? Soap or washing up liquid? There is a growing number of refill stores where customers can buy loose goods, decanting what they want into either their own reusable jar or container, or into a paper bag.