Plastic recycling surveys: good news stories don’t make the headlines

Neil Grundon, Deputy Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says the authors of the latest plastics recycling survey need to dig deeper.

Gosh, Greenpeace are a grumpy bunch, just recently they teamed up with plastics collector Daniel from Margate, to produce The Big Plastic Count. During Covid over 200,000 citizen scientists, in between educating their children and working from home, started hoarding and counting plastic.

The idea was to give every one of us the same chance to discover our own household’s plastic footprint.

Of course, the accompanying results – with statistics that declared 88% of household waste is being burnt, buried, and dumped overseas – were accompanied by shock horror headlines and pictures of folk looking forlornly at their weekly haul of plastic milk bottles, yoghurt pots, and the like.

According to Daniel’s Everyday Plastic organisation, which partnered with Greenpeace on this project, the survey had gathered “new, game-changing evidence to push the government into taking bold action on plastic”.

It seemed at no point during the survey did our earnest scientist seek out any alternative packaging materials and in the end, we learnt that the average number of bits of plastic we throw away in one week is 66.

The report made no mention of the plastic tax, which is helping to increase recycled content; the recent ban on straws was mentioned, but only in the context of discriminating against the disabled; and no mention was made of the plastic masks that have become ubiquitous to our country’s waterways and pavements since Covid first visited us in early 2020.

What a shame they didn’t dig a little deeper into their plastics mountain and look at some hard facts, or mention “Plasticfest” or its alternative name Glastonbury, something I like to call Greenpeace’s bi-annual fundraising jamboree in Somerset.

I tend to concur with the view that says such a bulldozer approach can do more harm than good.

It’s hard enough to encourage recycling as it is, let alone when people are effectively being told it isn’t worth it because their recycling will most likely be incinerated or sent to landfill anyway.

At Grundon, we’ve been pushing for a much more cohesive recycling approach from local authorities for a long time and the long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy should help to address that issue.

Already, as the British Plastics Federation has said, with the right drivers and investment, within seven years (2030) most of the plastic the UK uses could be recycled within this country, with only 1% going to landfills and very little exported.

I am also concerned that, as often happens with surveys such as this, any mention of commercial waste is missing.

I appreciate that for citizen scientists this data is hard to source (and probably not as exciting or photogenic as ‘Martha’ in her kitchen surrounded by plastic containers) but it is hugely important and misses out on all the great things that are happening within the industry.

Take for instance the amazing products being made by British Recycled Products from all sorts of plastics, including High-Density Polyethylene, Polypropylene and Polystyrene – all derived from plastic products including computer cases, car bumpers, and bottle tops.

Or how about play and garden equipment made from recycled plastic, it lasts for decades and is virtually maintenance-free. Plus, it saves on natural resources such as cutting down trees to make wooden furniture.

We work with many customers to identify and segregate additional waste streams. Take shopping centres, we’re doing great things to separate polythene and plastic coathangers for recycling – we talk to retailers to find out what is most important to them and then we find a solution. Depending on quantities, they can even earn money back.

I know we’re not alone in that approach, yet no one ever sees what goes on behind the scenes because good news stories don’t make the headlines. 

We also have to acknowledge, however, that recycling is not always an option for some types of plastic waste, especially those used in the medical sector that has to be incinerated. There are very good reasons for this.

But, as an industry, I believe we are all doing our very best to recycle and encourage our customers to recycle.

Beating us (and the Government) about the head is not the answer.

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