We are never going to get anywhere near the circular economy the way we are dealing with our rubbish in the UK at present. We need to recycle almost everything and ensure that nothing goes into landfill or into the sea. There have been various scandals about British rubbish being exported to poorer countries. What does that do for the planet, as it is still dangerous for people and bad for the environment?
Energy from waste
Here in Kent our rubbish goes to incineration by Enviropower at Allington Quarry near Maidstone (291 lorry-loads per day!). The recent article by Francis Williams points out that the more rubbish being put for incineration the less is being recycled. But incineration is also not without risks, particularly of heavy metal and dioxin contamination of the ash that result from the burning of unsorted waste, mostly organic.
Incineration is an attempt to deal with rubbish that has not been properly sorted by type. If rubbish is sorted properly, then it can be made into new things. That takes us much nearer to the circular economy, whereas incineration merely give us some electricity which could probably be produced more cheaply using a wind farm.
Getting it sorted
The problem in UK is that we are expected to sort our rubbish voluntarily. Consequently, although we might try to get it right, it is really difficult to know how to do it properly. Who, for example, takes the plastic film off plastic milk bottles before recycling them. Plastic film is not supposed to be recycled. Another difficulty is bubble wrap at the base of plastic tubs of soft fruit. Again bubble wrap is not supposed to be recycled.
If we receive deliveries from online suppliers, then we probably get plenty of cardboard boxes. How many of us recycle these correctly? We should first take the sellotape off and put it into the dustbin because plastic film cannot be recycled. Secondly, we should then flatten the box. I am not surer what the recyclers then do with it.
Topless or not?
Bottles are a major part of the recycling problem. What to do about bottle tops? It never ceases to amaze me that suppliers put completely unnecessary extra bits inside screw tops. There are various types – only some of which can be recycled with their plastic bottles – and what about the inner peeling bottle tops or the tiny strip of plastic you peel round?
Even with glass bottles, do we put the metal or plastic top into the recycling together with the glass bottle? I have just been faced with a glass olive oil bottle with a plastic inner pourer and a metal top. How do I recycle it? For starters – why do they need the inner plastic bit? Surely an ordinary glass bottle pours olive oil just fine.
What about the labels? Most labels are far too difficult to remove for anyone even to try. Actually the film labels on plastic milk cartons as mentioned above, are quite easy to remove. Most labels on glass bottles are impossible, but therein lies the benefits of cardboard which carries all the print necessary and they can be easily squashed and recycled.
Perhaps the suppliers might think about these problems rather more carefully if they were responsible for taking it all back. If they design it correctly, they could either save money or make a greater profit. That should be a great motivator for getting us nearer to a proper circular economy. The polluter really should pay.
Voluntary consumers and cash-strapped local councils are never going to get us anywhere near to the target. We are neither educated, nor motivated for this task. The manufacturers and supermarket suppliers are also not motivated to make it easy for us either. Nor do I believe that legislation on specific problems will solve it. Nothing short of making the producers entirely responsible for the cost of disposing of their packaging safely will suffice. That way they will have the incentive to remove the hard-to-recycle packaging.
We are responsible
Of course the supermarkets cannot be responsible for all our food waste. If you leave something too long in your fridge, it should not be their problem. Food waste is more easily identified by everyone and re-used in various ways. That which is edible can be used to feed people and some can be used to feed animals – although pigs do not seem to come into this category nowadays. Otherwise it has to be made safe for re-use in other products.
I have a policy that “if it has been cooked, then it goes into the food waste bin, but if it is vegetable peelings, then it is compost”. Non-gardeners, not interested in making compost, put all kitchen waste in the caddy. Most people buy ‘recyclable’ plastic sacks to line the caddy, but have you noticed these have suddenly vanished from some supermarket shelves (at Lidl, for instance)? So some people use plastic bags that are not recyclable instead, although ordinary newspaper, folded into the caddy, would recycle well.
Mixed waste is a problem
It is the mixed waste that causes the problems. Note it is separated waste, 65,000 tonnes a year, that is processed at Allington. But the Environpower website says:
“The Materials Recycling Facility has now closed and presently operates as a waste transfer station for 24,000 tonnes per year of clean recyclables and food waste.”
Only 24,000 tonnes? One suspects the more incineration, the less recycling.
Maybe we need legislation that the ‘polluter pays’ from the next government to get the circular economy properly on track.