Plastic Recycling – A Greenwashing Myth?

I’ve always advocated recycling. We recycle everything in our house – we use all the bins correctly, always have done, and before kerbside recycling we made a big effort to take everything to the recycling centre and separate it all correctly.

In the last year since doing this, my beliefs have changed. Now I am proud when my plastic recycling bag is as empty as possible. Why? Because the more I research, the more I realise that that plastic we seen in the oceans, in Blue Planet 2 and in countless Facebook posts I share, could well be ours. Not stuff that has drifted into the sea from naughty litter bugs (as annoying as that is) but on an industrial scale, sent for recycling with no thought as to how.

We don’t have many plastic recycling centres in the UK. We don’t have any in Devon. Vision Group for Sidmouth Futures Forum member Jeremy Woodward submitted a fantastic Freedom of Information request to DCC and EDDC and these are the responses:

Firstly DCC

On your website http://www.recycledevon.org/what-happens-to-your-recycling you state:

“Plastic: What happens: plastic is sorted into different grades and then sent to the correct reprocessor where it is turned into new plastic items such as bottles, fleeces and food containers.”

I would be grateful if you could answer the following questions:

> What systems do you use to determine how the “plastic is sorted into different grades”?

Please note that Recycledevon represents Devon County Council, the 8 Districts Authorities within Devon and Torbay Unitary Council. This request and the questions below are being responded to by Devon County Council for the operations under its control only – i.e. the operation of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCS) (Civic Amenity Sites) only.

At the HWRCs, the public and site staff sort plastic into separate containers.

In relation to the other functions of Recycledevon, we would recommend that you contact the District Councils and Torbay Council for information on their specific activities. Their contact details can be found on our website at: https://new.devon.gov.uk/neighbouring-authorities/

> How much of the plastic is sent on to “reprocessors” and how much is dealt with by other means, such as landfill waste, incineration or other methods of disposal, by yourself and by other bodies?

Plastics segregated at HWRCs are sent to reprocessors. In 2017/18 1,327 tonnes of plastic waste was sent to reprocessors. We do not record how much unsegregated plastic within general waste is sent to disposal processes.

> What systems do you use to determine who “the correct reprocessor” is?

The contractor operating the HWRCs determine where the material is sent and we therefore do not hold this information.

> Who precisely are the “reprocessors” you send the plastic to? By which I mean: What are the names and exact functions of these “reprocessors”?

• Viridor Rochester PRF
• Mononworld Recycling
• Wastecare
• Regenthill [research has shown that this reprocessor do send to Hong Kong]
• Kempenaars [research has shown that this company is based in the Netherlands]
• Empark Recycling Ltd

> What systems do these ‘reprocessors’ use to determine how they then deal with the plastic?

Devon County Council does not hold this information

> What percentages of the “new plastic items” are turned into “bottles, fleeces and food containers” – and other items?

Devon County Council does not hold this information

> What systems do you use to keep track of the plastic to ensure that it is properly dealt with, from it leaving the sorting/ grading process to the final end-use?

Devon County Council do not have any systems in place; this is covered by waste management legislation, the duty of care owed by the parties who are transporting it and the regulation by the Environment Agency.

> Finally: What percentage, if any, leaves our shores?

Devon County Council does not hold this information

Jeremy then replied with:

Thank you for your reply.

You state that you “have provided me with a list of who the contractors are, as I requested”. Thank you for that.

However, I had in fact made a total of eight requests for information, four of which you answered with either:
> “Devon County Council does not hold this information”; or
> “Devon County Council do not have any systems in place”.
This is indeed very disappointing as I stated above.

You also ask that I “include all of these requests so that you can deal with them at the same time”.
As I state above, I shall be contacting you again with further requests for clarification in due course, including:
> the details of who “the contractors operating the HWRCs” are;
> as you suggest, “where all of the companies are based”; and
> alternative sources for reprocessors now that China is no longer accepting plastic for reprocessing.

Thank you for offering to deal with any further questions: I appreciate that it would be more convenient to provide you with all my follow-up questions at one time.

I shall therefore include all of these as requests for clarification in relation to my original FOI request.

I shall be contacting you in due course.

Yours sincerely,

Jeremy Woodward

They are waiting for our response which we are currently working on.

Jeremy then submitted the same request to EDDC:

Dear Mr Woodward,

Thank you for your request for information. Please find the response to your query below.

1. What systems do you use to determine how the “plastic is sorted into different grades”?

EDDC sell plastics collected as a mixed plastics grade. The mixed grade goes to a number of plastic recycling plants who then sort it into grades and they then sell it on to a number of processors. The missed plastic grade is sold to a number of plants who provide the best prices at the time. Our most recent loads have gone to Roydon Polythene in Manchester but this will change regularly.

2. How much of the plastic is sent on to “reprocessors” and how much is dealt with by other means, such as landfill waste, incineration or other methods of disposal, by yourself and by other bodies? 

EDDC do not hold this data. A small proportion of plastic sent to any processor will be rejected for quality and other reasons and alternative means of disposal is used for this fraction

3. What systems do you use to determine who “the correct reprocessor” is?

See 1 above

4. Who precisely are the “reprocessors” you send the plastic to? By which I mean: What are the names and exact functions of these “reprocessors”?

See 1 above

5. What systems do these ‘reprocessors’ use to determine how they then deal with the plastic?

This question needs to be addressed to the processors

6. What percentages of the “new plastic items” are turned into “bottles, fleeces and food containers” ? and other items?

EDDC do not hold this data

7. What systems do you use to keep track of the plastic to ensure that it is properly dealt with, from it leaving the sorting/grading process to the final end-use?

See 1 above

8. Finally: What percentage, if any, leaves our shores?

This question needs to be addressed to the processors

 

 

The HWRCs in Devon are run by SUEZ Recycling & Recovery (UK) Ltd under contract to Devon County Council. Devon County Council will be able to provide further details.


 

Hmmm

It seems like we are going around in circles but what is clear is that DCC and EDDC send on their plastic recycling to processors and contractors with no responsibility for what happens to it, and no knowledge of whether it is recycled at all. If we has householders did this to get rid of our waste, we are potentially fly tipping…surely a great deal more checking and accountability would be required? EDDC is very proud of it’s recycling records but is it all green washing? Is it all a myth to make us feel better about our ridiculous consumption levels?

Well done to Jeremy for getting this far but it is a very difficult, time consuming, laborious job to try and tease this information out. All I feel at the moment is that the waste I put in my kitchen bin at least gets incinerated safely and made into energy – whereas the bottles I lovingly wash out and put in my recycling bag could well be floating around in the pacific right now. The huge container ships that bring our electrical goods crap destined for imminent landfill have to go back and it’s been seen as a ‘better solution’ to send our recycling back rather than an empty ship.  I know China have refused to take any more but it is still going to other countries in Far East, Africa, Europe – and some of these countries have no waste management systems for their own rubbish let alone ours too. Looking at footage of the main rivers in some of these areas shows the scale of the problem. Something needs to change urgently and I still firmly believe it is abolishing single use plastic completely.

Dx

 

[UPDATE: I have just had this article sent to me that illustrates the problem perfectly – https://www.raconteur.net/sustainability/plastic-recycling-china-ban]

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