Another morning and another main stream media story about plastic in the ocean.  It’s all doom and gloom and plastic is made out to be the bad man, while statistics such as by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish are front and centre.

It’s a scary old world out there.

Why don’t we ban plastic say the BBC?  Have you seen our whale ask sky?

It could all be so different if the media, and indeed the politicians would listen to the industry.  Last week, Mike Baxter of RPC-BPI stood in front of the annual RECOUP (RECycling of Used Plastic) conference and made a passionate speech about the lack of government involvement and how the industry has been left to its own devices.  A clear difference with the involvement of the European parliament as Mike pointed out.

But in amongst an ocean of gloom (and plastic) there was a clear message from the recycling industry on how to solve the problem.  The first, and loudest was to ban the export of waste.  For too long local authorities and government have met their ‘recycling’ targets by loading containers with ‘recycled’ material and shipping it abroad.  It is no coincidence that 80% of marine plastic originates from 5 South East Asian countries – the same 5 where the majority of UK (and other developed nations) ship their ‘recycled’ materials.  Just 2% of marine litter originates from the coastlines of the USA and Europe combined.

There is a moral issue here – while government departments must abide by social responsibility guidelines when procuring from companies, the same is not applied when exporting.  It is the responsibility of the local authorities to make sure their sub contractors are not simply packing and shipping containers, where the majority will end up in landfill (or the ocean) once reaching its final destination.

This leads onto the second wish of the recycling industry – quality!  Quality guidelines exist in the form of the End of Non Packaging waste protocols published by the Environmental Agency, however these are rarely followed, other than with lip service.   Local councils routinely reduce collections of residual waste bins to force consumers to throw more into their recycling bins (and thus improve collection statistics) while reducing the quality in the recycling bin.  The end result is more recycling cost and a drive to incineration and export.

It is all well and good consulting about bottle return schemes, and trying to make milk bottles out of PET, but neither of these initiatives will make any real dent in the problem.  We already recycling our drink bottles and HDPE milk cartons are simple and easy to recycle – finding their way back into products such as shampoo bottles (https://www.headandshoulders.co.uk/en-gb/whats-new/new-head-shoulders-bottle-to-be-made-with-recycled-beach-plastic).

Finally – investment has to be made in the right areas.  Flashy shiny lights do not make an effective recycling centre.  The right technology is needed in the right locations to produce the right outputs – outputs where there is an industry demand.  If there is no demand for black PET, don’t invest money and effort into producing recycled black PET – the solution is to force a change in the product manufacturing and make the product out of a material where is a demand for the recyclate.

A step change is needed – and the change needs to come from government policy and enforcement of current laws.  The media need to stop running ‘Plastic Bad’ stories at prime time and educate the public on the real problems.  Cost incentives need to be in place for consumers to choose recycled materials in products (such as a reduction in VAT for recyclable products as raised by Ton Emens of Plastic Recycling Europe).

Make these changes and ‘recycling figures’ will plummet and the main stream media will have a new doom and gloom story.  But plastic in the ocean will also plummet and we’ll forget it was ever a problem.