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What happens to plastic waste in the UK?

For Recycle Week, here’s what you need to know about the life cycle of your plastic waste – and why it might not be what you think

recycle week

The government’s claim that nearly half of the UK’s plastic waste is recycled “simply isn’t true”, according to Greenpeace. Image: Pexels

Many Brits know the dangers of plastic waste and spend time diligently sorting their recycling, cleaning plastic bottles and food packaging before placing it in the right bins for collection. This Recycle Week – running from September 20 to September 26 – the public is being challenged to increase their commitment to the small steps which benefit the planet, such as disposing of plastic responsibly.

But it comes as campaigners warn the efforts of good-intentioned Brits are going to waste. Greenpeace has reported that less than 10 per cent of everyday plastic waste is recycled in the UK, with some being incinerated, adding toxic chemicals to the atmosphere, or forgotten in landfills.

The rest – nearly 540,000 tonnes – is exported to other countries. Exported plastic must, by law, be recycled or incinerated, but recent investigations revealed much of the UK’s plastic export was being dumped.

Here’s what you need to know about the lifecycle of your plastic waste.

What happens to plastic waste in the UK? 

Most recycling produced by households is transported to sorting facilities to be separated into types, by both workers and machines. 

They are sorted into polymer types – the different kinds of plastics households goods are made out of – then shredded by type and melted back down into polymer pellets, which are sold to create new products.

Does our plastic really get recycled?

The government’s claim that nearly half of the UK’s plastic waste is recycled “simply isn’t true”, according to Greenpeace. 

British recycling infrastructure is poor, meaning some plastic is still incinerated and released into the atmosphere as air pollution and toxic smoke. Those incinerators are three times as likely to be located in deprived areas and near the communities with more people of colour.

Other plastic can still go to landfill, adding toxic chemicals to the environment and taking up to 500 years to decompose.

What are the effects of exported plastic waste?

Nearly 40 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste is exported to Turkey, followed by Malaysia (12 per cent) and Poland (seven per cent). All three countries have very low recycling rates.

“The plastic trash overwhelms our struggling recycling system, gets into the environment and is burned creating harmful smoke,” said Nihan Temiz Ataş, biodiversity projects lead for Greenpeace Mediterranean. “It’s around 240 truckloads every single day.

“We have been campaigning for years to stop enormous quantities of plastic trash coming to Turkey and making us Europe’s largest plastic waste dump.

“We are saddened that the Turkish Minister for the Environment has so quickly overturned the proposed ban on plastic imports, bowing to pressure from industry. We need strong action from the government to protect the health of our environment and our citizens.”

This doesn’t mean you should stop recycling, the campaigners said, but it will take government action to address the wider problem of excess plastic being produced in the first place.

For more information on what you can do this Recycle Week, visit WRAP.

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