Plastic has become a real problem. We’ve never consumed more plastic than we do now at any other moment in history. Twenty times more plastic is being produced today than fifty years ago. People in the UK put their plastic containers in the bins, fully trusting that it will be recycled, but the truth of what happens is quite alarming.
First of all, as many of two thirds of the general population is a bit confused about what can and can’t be recycled. Should we empty and wash out the containers before placing them in the recycling bin? And which types of plastics go in the bin? Can plastic wrappings be recycled? The rules vary.
The shocking part is that all the plastic will eventually be collected but that doesn’t mean that it will all get recycled. 78 million tons of plastic packaging is produced every year. After a very short period of time, most of it gets thrown away and only 2% of it is recycled and converted into new packaging. Some of it gets burned, some is used for landfills, and one third of it ends up polluting the environment.
Allegedly the market for plastic is strong. It turns out that a lot of it doesn’t get processed in the UK; it’s exported. One country has taken more of it than any other: China.
Most people don’t know that the plastic they throw away is all compacted, bound together, and shipped to Hong Kong. China imports up to 10 tons of plastic per year. Allegedly they need it to feed their manufacturing process. Entire villages in China are dedicated to sorting through the world’s garbage: some from Germany, some from Japan, some from the UK. The country easily became the world’s dumping ground. But after a few decades they were no longer willing to continue playing that role because they had their own rubbish to deal with.
As a result China then imposed tough restrictions on the import of foreign waste in 2017: any dirty, contaminated plastic would be flatly rejected.
Now the dirty plastic just stands there— a mountain of useless material and nobody knows what to do with it. It might end up in landfills.
In one year, British households produce over 22 million tons of garbage. The EU demands that at least half be recycled by 2020.