WHILE MUCH FUSS is made about recycling, the majority of what we send to so-called mechanical-biological waste treatment plants can’t be recycled at all. So thousands of tonnes of plastic are quietly landfilled, incinerated or shipped to the Far East for “further processing”.
As far as local authorities here in the UK are concerned it doesn’t particularly matter which option is taken – once waste has been collected and sent for recycling it counts as “recycled”, even if it isn’t.
What’s worse, once rubbish is shipped to the Far East it’s hard to tell what that fate is. Waste management in the developing world is primitive to say the least, which is why so much rubbish ends up being burnt or flung in rivers, from where it finds its way to the oceans. Our exports of waste for further processing are simply being injected into this chaotic system and it seems clear that much is not dealt with effectively. One recycling industry insider estimates that up to 20 per cent of the millions of tons of waste we have sent to China has ended up in the oceans.
It’s getting worse though. At the start of January, the Chinese government finally decided that it could no longer cope with other countries’ waste problems, and announced a ban on imports. For the waste management industry here in the UK, this was a huge headache, and it looks as though desperate measures are being taken as a result.
Official data suggest there has been a rapid increase of waste exports to other East Asian countries, but since these have even more ineffective waste management systems than the Chinese, the result is likely to be that the marine litter problem is going to get worse, not better. There are also signs that recyclers here are increasingly resorting to burning rubbish. Sometimes this happens in environmentally benign high-temperature incinerators, but since the ban came into effect fires at waste recycling facilities in the UK have been occurring at a rate of more than one a day. There are strong suspicions that some of these are set deliberately as a way of getting rid of rubbish without paying charges for landfilling or incineration.
This is an environmental scandal, because in the relatively low temperatures generated in uncontrolled fires, combustion of plastics is incomplete, and high levels of toxic dioxins are generated.
Coming after biofuels, biomass and windfarms, recycling looks like just another green mandate that is causing more damage to the environment than it can ever hope to prevent. It’s time to put a stop to it.
Andrew Montford is the deputy director of the Global Warming Policy Forum. He is on Twitter at @adissentient