Single-use plastics: Fiddling while Rome burns...

Banning straws when the oceans are filling with our exported plastic is like fiddling while Rome burns. 

Surely this government and the NGOs must realise that banning straws, coffee cups and other single-use plastic will do very little to change the problem of plastics in our oceans.  These items are not going into the recycling bin in general, since they are not readily recyclable. So, reduce them by all means, but do not pretend this will make one jot of difference to the issue in the seas. It is exported plastic waste that is adding to the plastic polluting our oceans, and it is set to get worse since China has decided to call time on our poor-quality plastic exports.

Single-use plastics: Fiddling while Rome burns...
Jessica Baker, MD at Chase Plastics Ltd.

Unbelievably, the UK has been hastily looking for other overseas outlets for our poorly sorted and mixed plastic wastes, the government, Defra and the Environment Agency are all complicit in this, since they are terrified of not meeting the recycling targets without the ability to export our plastic waste problem. According to data on the National Packaging Waste Database, the tonnage of plastic waste exported only fell by 9,000 tonnes compared to this time last year when China was still receiving waste.

So, where is all this stuff going? Surely, we should be asking ourselves this question. If the answer is that we have found a new home for the low-grade mixed plastic waste that China did not want, should we not be concerned that it might be inundating countries that already have a much poorer environmental record than China, and will struggle to cope to actually reprocess all this material?

Sadly, the reality is that plastic needs to be sorted into its separate polymers and formats in order to facilitate final reprocessing back into reusable pellets. But as long as we keep sending poorly sorted plastic overseas for reprocessing, a significant proportion of this mix will end up in open landfill, the rivers and, eventually, the oceans. 

We can reduce single-use plastics of course, but this is not the answer to ocean plastic pollution, since these single-use plastics should really go in the black bin. We are already kidding ourselves by collecting all sorts of very hard-to-recycle plastics in order to meet our recycling target, before sending these unrecyclable materials overseas.

We need to make products more easily recyclable, and we should then only collect these products and reprocess them in the UK whenever possible. However, if we are going to export plastic, it must be of a sorted single polymer stream or format, so the overseas reprocessors do not have to re-sort it and then throw out what they can’t use. Only this is going to address our contribution to the problem of ocean plastics.

Jessica Baker is Managing Director of UK plastics recycler, Chase Plastics Ltd.

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