Ecology: Use less, Reuse and Recycle

Ecology: Use less, Reuse and Recycle

The following is an edited version of an editorial from the Guardian Newspaper on recycling

Take-out coffee and bottled water symbolise both the luxury and the waste of the early 21st century. They represent the throwaway world, the always-on culture, the low-pay, low-skill jobs. They reflect our catastrophic disregard of the consequences of our choices for the world around us.

It is now a week since China implemented tight new controls on the kind of waste it will take for recycling.  Greenpeace estimates that as much as half of the plastics Britain sends to China will be unacceptable.

Take out coffee cups look innocent. But in between the cardboard is a tightly bonded polyethylene liner, which is difficult to remove and means they are not accepted by paper mills. Like the fashion for carrying around fresh water, it seems the faster we talk about the need to be green, the quicker we invent materials that may outlast the human race. It would not be difficult to use less – for example by making drinking water freely available everywhere, and introducing a deposit scheme to encourage re-use.

But the message on plastics applies to all kinds of packaging: use less, re-use more, and recycle the rest. Now China is no longer prepared to be the developed world’s offshore dump.

Recycling plastics can be profitable, but it is also capital intensive and risky because if the price of raw materials involved in making new plastics falls, the recycled alternative becomes uncompetitive – so when the oil price collapsed in 2016, councils had to bear more of the cost of recycling.

Deposits on plastic drinks bottles and a levy on takeaway cups are a start. They tackle the problem at the sharp end, and make us more aware of the costs of our habits. But it can’t all be down to consumers. There should be more effort to educate about recycling and the risk of contamination, more on-street bins for the most valuable, food-quality, plastics.

Dropping a bottle on the street or in a picnic area, putting it in the rubbish rather than in the recycling, need to acquire the same kind of social stigma as smoking in front of children. But the fight should start before recycling, and before re-use. It should begin with the producer: use less plastic packaging. Make the polluter pay.