Although plastic is often thought of as a single use material, it actually lasts a very long time and can be used over and over again. In the UK around 45% of plastic is recycled and 30% is incinerated to generate electricity. The remaining 25% goes to landfill - wasting the value of the material, and causing the environmental impact we are all currently talking about. Although the UK has made enormous strides in reducing this amount over the past 20 years, we are a long way behind other countries that don’t send any waste to landfill, like Germany, Norway or the Netherlands.
Levels of recycling
A 45% recycling rate sounds good, but its effectiveness is all about how much of the value of the product is re-used.
The most effective recycling is where the product is used in the same form for the same use.
Next comes the plastic being re-used – effectively as virgin material – to produce products of the same value. The problem is that plastic materials are often down-cycled into less valuable products because waste streams often contain many different types of plastic and mixtures of plastics mostly have inferior properties to pure plastics. For recycling to become more efficient, waste collection and separation systems must be improved. Products could also be designed for their whole lifecycle - including recycling.
If the plastics cannot be re-used, the plastic can be broken down into its chemical building blocks and re-used at that level.
Why incineration isn’t so bad
There are positive aspects to recovering energy from plastics through incineration, especially in the case of mixed or contaminated plastics that are difficult to recycle. Plastics are made from petrochemicals which are produced by the oil refining process. Plastics contain the same amount of energy as the oil they are made from and after a useful life they can be safely incinerated and converted into energy or electricity.
We need a systems approach
There is a complex problem to solve with plastics and a simple blanket ban may not be the answer if we want to create a more sustainable society. The solution could lie in a steep increase in recycling rates and the creation of a ‘circular economy’ where plastic materials are more effectively recycled at higher value uses.
Waste prevention, for example through use of less materials, is the preferred waste management option. It is followed by waste reduction through, for example reuse followed by recycling, recovery including incineration with energy recovery or compositing and as a last option, safe disposal.