Confessions of a “wishcycler”

It’s National Recycling Week and the focus for its twentieth year is “missed capture”, the household items that could and should be recycled, but often aren’t. 

Abika Martin
rubbish sorted into recycling sections

Interested parties wishing to improve their recycling habits can find helpful suggestions on the Recycle Now website, but, while I support the educational push, I can’t help wondering if what we are really missing is the purpose of the whole process – or at least, its role relative to other solutions.

To bin, or not to bin: that is the question

I don’t want to come across as anti-recycling – far from it. In the UK, we save 10-15 million tonnes of CO2 every year through the practice, which is not to be sniffed at. But I will admit that, confronted by our Monday night sorting spree, I find myself thinking wistfully back to the COVID lockdowns when all we could do was drink wine, and the abundance of empty glass bottles, helpfully, could all go in a single bin. 

Rishi Sunak may have drawn the line at seven bins in his speech last month, but I suspect many people would be content to have 20 bins - if only they understood what was supposed to go in each one.

Navigating the dos and don’ts of kerbside collection policies can feel herculean. Even armed with the basics of organic compound nomenclature provided many years ago by my Chemistry A-Level, I can be overwhelmed working out which of the seven different types of plastic goes where. I am not alone – a survey in 2022 found that 80% of the population are uncertain if they are recycling effectively – hardly surprising given there are 39 different collection regimes in place nationally.

This confusion and lack of confidence isn’t misplaced. 

17% of collected recycling is unintentionally contaminated by aspirational recycling – the eponymous “wishcycling” of this article - referring to the behaviour by which non-recyclable materials are optimistically placed in the recycling bin. 

The trouble is that such contamination has grave impacts on the value of the recycled material. In some cases, an entire collection has to be disposed of instead. This leads to over half a million tonnes of waste sent to recycling being rejected, which in turn creates over £48 million in costs to local authorities per annum.

The UK is generally a recycling success story, with 90% of UK households regularly recycling, and a national recycling rate of almost half our total waste. Nevertheless, 14m tonnes still ends up in landfill.

Prevention is better than cure

The slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” was coined back in the 1970s, and the chronology of this trilogy was key – reflecting a preferable hierarchy of outcomes for waste. 50 years on, however, we seem to have forgotten about the first one. 

In the UK, each of us generates an estimated 1.3kg of waste each day – that is 400kg per year. While recycling is a valuable way to mitigate the impact of this, it is not a solution. And though we may feel that our plastic use is harmless if we diligently drop it into a green box for collection each week, it is worth remembering that there is a finite number of times polymers can be recycled successfully as degradation occurs throughout the process.

There is a phrase in computer science – “garbage in, garbage out” – which encapsulates the idea that flawed inputs will result in nonsense outputs. Applied here, it could be said that recycling is simply addressing those outputs – but they will remain problematic until we do something about the inputs. I am talking here about our level of consumption, and what that is wrapped in. 

Plastic consumption is being addressed through a number of policies in the UK. Back in 2015, the first charges on single use plastic bags were levied. Then in 2018, microbeads were banned from cosmetics. In October 2020, other single use plastics such as plastic straws were ousted and, this month, new restrictions on items such as plastic cutlery came into force. The EU this week banned glitter (a move that could be interpreted as positively Scrooge-like, coming so close to the festive season).

Financial disincentives have been introduced too, with a UK Plastic Packaging Tax introduced in April 2022. A Deposit Return Scheme for drinks containers is on the horizon for 2025 – though critics will note this has already been pushed back.

As these rules and restrictions evolve, we will have to accept that sometimes inconvenience or discomfort accompanies positive change. 

When Sainsbury’s vacuum-packed their beef mince earlier this year, in a move estimated to save 450 tonnes of plastic annually, there was a ferocious backlash - not only because the new packaging was not as widely recyclable as the old, but due to the perceived impact on the product within. And I am sure each of us has, at some point, denounced a soggy paper straw.

In those moments, perhaps we need to remember that the invisible impacts of our plastic problem are far worse. It has been estimated that people consume on average 250 grams of plastic each year – roughly a credit card sized amount each week. The potential effects of this on our health are thought to range from cancers to infertility. The animal kingdom too is suffering, particularly in our oceans (as I outlined previously).

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

For the plastic product that can’t be cut out by consumer choices or regulatory pressure, perhaps it is time we gave recycling a rebrand. 

Imagine if we stopped categorising recycling as waste management and started thinking of it as resource management.

After all, over 99% of plastics are produced from chemicals derived from fossil fuels, and we have become far more mindful of our consumption of oil, gas and coal because of our understanding of their global impacts. 

The term ‘waste’ implies that used plastic, ultimately, has no real further value, and can be discarded. Aside from being fundamentally incorrect (high grade material can command prices of several hundred pounds sterling per tonne), it also invites guesswork at best or complacency at worst. As innovations are developed in chemical recycling - such as depolymerisation, pyrolysis, or gasification – we may potentially see the usable life of recyclable plastics extended, offering increasing inherent value in this so-called waste. Reframing it as a valuable and valued ‘resource’ is imperative.

In the meantime, we should be mindful that plastic is not demonic, in and of itself. It is our overuse of it that has been problematic, therefore more responsible, considered use will be a large part of the solution to that problem in the years ahead.

Because simply recycling, without making other changes? Well…it’s just rubbish.

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