Last year, David Attenborough’s astonishingly beautiful Blue Planet II series on BBC One kickstarted a minor revolution in pollution awareness. Having been shown heart-wrenching images of helpless sea creatures falling foul of the thick veneer of plastic waste coating their watery habitats, one in five viewers immediately switched to reusable shopping bags and a staggering 39 per cent reported anxiety about invisible microplastics in tap water, practically unknown before the documentary aired. Clearly, despite our pre-Blue Planet ignorance, we are now a nation that cares about plastic in the oceans.
Horrifyingly, that same survey found that an alarming 70 per cent of Britons said they were confused about what can and cannot be recycled, with 65 per cent wrongly categorising cling film as recyclable and 71 per cent wreaking untold havoc by tossing their non-recyclable laminated rice pouches into the recycling bin.
Little wonder, then, that 2012–16 saw an 84 per cent increase in items mindlessly thrown into recycling bins being rejected later on, with only half of our overall rubbish ending up being recycled. Over three quarters of all plastic waste ever created has never been recycled and is still swirling around in the environment.
This is not a case of the uninformed average Joe disrupting noble government efforts to save the planet. The UK recycling system is a total shambles. Recycling is an area where meaningful progress can be made towards minimising mankind’s impact on the natural world cheaply and easily even in times of austerity, so it is an outrage that we are failing to realise this opportunity.
This failure is made yet more grievous by the fact that the solutions to this environmental damage are painfully simple. There is no confusion within academia or the third sector about which plastic items can be recycled, or how we might go about doing it.
The problem unequivocally lies in shockingly poor management of the issue at a local level. Across the UK, there are no less than 39 different sets of rules for the collection of plastic recycling, which presumably explains why nearly half of us disagree at home about what waste can be recycled. Amazingly, three English councils do not recycle any plastic at all.
Even common and easily recyclable items like margarine tubs and yoghurt pots are rejected by over a quarter of local authorities, while plastic carrier bags, which often pose a deadly threat to wildlife of all shapes and sizes for a full millennium before they decompose, are accepted by just 18 per cent of local councils.
The technology for these schemes exists and is in action across the country and indeed the world, but widespread chronic inaction continues to fuel the plastic pollution epidemic.
What’s more, this entirely unnecessary inconsistency makes it very difficult for potential allies to assist in the project to ramp up recycling efforts. Thanks to evident public concern and a growing sense of social responsibility, big businesses are increasingly willing to take up the mantle and contribute towards creating a better future for our children, such as through clear instructions on labels about sensible disposal of packaging. But regardless of how willing they might be, how can they have any meaningful impact when recycling policy changes drastically from town to town?
It’s in a brand’s interest to publicise that their product is recyclable, even if local rules mean it is not recyclable everywhere. That means that the majority of consumers who see the green recycling symbol but do not read the small print underneath it often suffer misconceptions about that item, which inevitably results in many items being erroneously put into the recycling bin, despite the positive intentions of the oblivious consumer.
In addition to all that, we can no longer ignore the appalling phenomenon of shipping vast quantities of our plastic waste to other countries, where the relevant legislation is much more lenient, and cheerfully dumping our rubbish into their land and seas. At least we’re not choking British fish, right?
The government is currently undertaking a major review of the whole recycling system in England, and the results are expected imminently. There is a crying need for some degree of unity among local authorities about the way forward on this crucial issue where so much can be done at such a low cost. We need to clean up our act, both literally and metaphorically.