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The Gap Year Blog

Why is UK failing to recycle its waste?

8 Mar 2019 16:25 PM

Photo Credit: Flickr

Edited with Permission by Frontier

By now, you must have seen the photos of garbage washed up on the beaches or the massive plastic waste islands floating in the oceans across the world. This is an environmental disaster caused by years of laziness and neglection of proper waste disposal. Many countries and people still dumb some of their garbage into the oceans; pieces of plastic, furniture, foods, clothing and other materials are currently drifting out there instead of being recycled.

As plastic consumption in the UK is set to increase by a fifth within the next decade, the issue of plastic disposal has become more immediate than ever. When considering the amount of plastics produced and thrown away every day, its disposal seems like a daunting task to tackle.

To avoid plastic ending up in the oceans, general consumption must be reduced. Buying less equals less waste. The second step is recycling. The existing plastics, or any other waste accumulated, must be given a longer lifespan or a completely new purpose to minimise the extensive throwaway culture. That is just two steps. Sounds simple, right?

Photo Credit: Flickr

Lately, recycling has become the centre of discussion on how to sustainably manage the increasing amount of garbage people generate. By regenerating waste and unused items, the consumerism mentality could be challenged, and not as much new material would have to be produced thus also resulting in less carbon dioxide emissions. 

The short usage time of many of these items is often met with a long lifetime of the actual material, creating a massive waste problem. Recycling plastics, metals, papers and many other items reduces waste going to already full landfills which are not designed to dispose waste but to store it.

If the importance of recycling is wildly acknowledged in the UK, and as an EU member, the UK has committed to recycling a least half of its garbage by 2020, why the amount of household waste recycled by many local authorities is in decline. It looks like the UK is set to fail the EU target as the current recycling rate in the whole country only reaches 45.7 per cent.

Although the reports show that the overall household waste recycling rate in the UK has increased over the years, over half of the local authorities are recycling less, especially in England. There are many factors to why recycling hasn’t grown at the pace it once did, but one major impact on the decline has been waste incineration for energy. Between 2014 and 2016, the number of energy recovery almost tripled whereas recycling increased only 8 per cent during the same time

On surface, burning waste may seem like an efficient alternative to recycling. It reduces up to 96 per cent of waste mass, instead of storing it, like landfills do. It can produce energy that can be used for heating and electricity which is why incinerators have started to substitute other power plants more harmful to the environment. The EU even considers incineration of biogenic waste as a non-fossil renewable energy. 

But as one might guess, it is all too good to be true. In reality, incineration remains as a controversial way to get rid of waste. In the USA, incineration is considered as the last result to dispose waste when it cannot be recycled. This is a stand many scientists and environmentalists have taken. The toxic ashes, dioxin, CO2 and furan emissions released in the burning process and flue gases, which in large quantities can harm environment and cause health issues, concern many people living nearby incinerators. Nevertheless, these are issues that can be taken care of by using appropriate technology and processes to reuse the ashes or limit the emissions released by the incinerator.

Building and running incineration facilities itself is costly but the technology for sustainable processing of its emissions only adds on to the price. Nowadays, more environmentally friendly incinerators are becoming a rule rather than an exception as the concern over the worsening state of environment intensifies. European Union, for instance, has issued a directive limiting the amount of emissions that can be emitted to air and waters, leading the way for more sustainable incineration. If the region has the money and technology for sustainable incineration, the temptation for fast and efficient waste disposal by burning seems to be great nowadays.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Environmental issues are an important reason why incineration has met some reservations from several establishments but as the newer facilities are becoming increasingly efficient with their emission disposal, the environmental impacts remain relevant but have lost some ground. The key reason why incineration is regarded as the last resort is because it upholds the constant cycle of consuming. 

In the long run, the earth cannot handle the increasing amount of unused material. Recycling or minimising waste by buying less are the only options to achieve more sustainable cycle of consumption. Recycling waste, instead of incinerating it, would allow material to stay in use for a longer period of time whereas waste minimisation would reduce the need for waste disposal facilities altogether.

Plastic, clothing and paper can be recycled or reused to some extent. This would also enormously reduce the demand for production of fresh material thereby also resulting in cuts in CO2 and other emissions created in different production processes. Not only would recycling help to decrease greenhouse gases, it’d also helps to conserve natural resources and wildlife. By recycling, less waste ends up taking up space in landfills and nature where many people unfortunately leave their garbage.


Why is recycling still in decline and incineration on rise in Britain?

It looks like the British recycling systems is failing due to its complexity. Each council has their own way of recycling which makes knowing what you can and cannot recycle challenging. For example, some plastics materials might not be recyclable in some council areas whereas in some areas you are able to recycle most of your plastics. According to a study by Beyond the Box, over 50 per cent of British people do not know what goes into the recycling bin.

Due to the uncertainty of what items belong to recycling, over half of Brits admit they have knowingly thrown away recyclable items just because it’s easier. This increases the amount of waste going to landfills or incineration when with a bit of effort or clearer instructions, it could be recycled.

Perhaps, the awareness of the upsurge of incineration has eased throwing away unused items without bothering recycling them because people seem to trust that someone somewhere is taking care of their waste, hopefully in a sustainable way.

Photo Credit: Flickr

British people are lacking knowledge on recycling and find it time consuming which could be solved as simply as by marking and separating bins clearly. Right now, many of the bins only say ‘General Waste’ and ‘Mixed Recycling' which doesn’t tell much unless you have done your research. The UK should take a note from some European countries where there are separate bins, for instance, for food, paper, plastic, metal and trash. This arrangement makes it easy for anyone to sort out their garbage instead of googling which items go into recycling.

But what would have the most affect on simplifying the recycling process in the UK is the unification of recycling standards and methods. Currently, recycling in the UK is unequal because the councils do not offer, and are not required to offer, the same recycling possibilities. By standardising recycling, the confusion around what can be recycled, how it can be recycled and where it can be recycled would disappear.

The UK still has a long way to go to if it wants to turn around its recycling rates. Right now, it is unlikely that the UK will recycle half of its household waste by 2020 unless some serious changes are made to the process.

By Tiia Kärkkäinen - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!