Where Does All Our Plastic Recycling Actually Go?

The PM claims plastic recycling isn't worth it – so here's breakdown of what the UK actually does with all of our discarded materials.
Recycling is supposed to reduce waste, but people are getting more and more disheartened about whether it's actually effective
SolStock via Getty Images
Recycling is supposed to reduce waste, but people are getting more and more disheartened about whether it's actually effective

Recycling appears to be one of the easiest ways to tackle the climate crisis, particularly when it comes to the mostly non-biodegradable material of plastic.

However, prime minister Boris Johnson took down the idea of recycling during a press conference on Monday.

He said: “The issue with plastics, is that recycling isn’t the answer, I’ve got to be honest with you.

“You’re not going to like this, but recycling doesn’t begin to address the problem. You can only recycle plastic a couple of times.

“And what you’ve got to do is stop the production of plastic, stop the first use of plastic. Recycling is a red herring.”

Yet some specialists within the industry told HuffPost UK that “recycling does work and is a critical part of tackling climate change” as it takes less energy to produce a bottle from recycled material than new material.

But it’s only effective if our recycling piles are actually used for new content, rather than burnt in landfills or sent overseas.

So what actually happens to our sorted piles of rejected plastic packaging?

What happens to the waste which is actually recycled?

The recycling piles are sorted into polymer types and then shredded and melted into new plastic pellets which are then sold on.

The BBC claims just 16% of plastic waste is recycled to make new plastics, with much of the plastic from bottles and other packaging which would be ideal for recycling ending in landfill.

How much of our recycling is sent overseas?

RECOUP, an industry body which promotes recycling, suggests Britain recycles less than 10% of its household plastic packaging in the UK.

But the government claims just under half of our plastic recycling (46.2%) heads abroad after being organised at sorting facilities.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace also claim much more than half of the household plastic recycled in the UK is recycled overseas, as the equivalent of three and a half Olympic swimming pools’ worth of plastic is sent abroad from the UK every day.

According to Greenpeace, a lot of this goes to countries with “very low recycling rates and a serious problem with plastic waste being dumped or burned illegally”.

In 2018 the National Audit Office claimed: “The increase in [the UK’s] overall packaging recycling rates has mostly been due to a growth in exports: since 2002 the total amount of packaging waste exported abroad has increased sixfold while the total amount recycled in the UK has remained steady.”

Which countries does it go to?

It used to head towards China, but 39% now goes towards Turkey, 12% towards Malaysia and 7% to Poland – all three nations have low recycling rates.

The BBC found in 2020 that British plastic waste had been “dumped by the side of the road abandoned in illegal dumps or even set on fire” – even though it’s illegal to export plastic waste unless it will be recycled.

Greenpeace investigators found in 2021 that UK plastic waste was being dumped and burned at illegal rubbish tips in a Turkish province, Adana.

A similar situation was unfolding in Malaysia, including local authority recycling bags from London and Essex.

In January 2020, Malaysia’s government also announced it sent 42 containers of illegally imported plastic waste back to Britain.

According to Interpol, more than 2,500 tonnes of UK waste was sent to an illegal dump in Poland, most of which was from both households and supermarkets, in 2018.

How much of plastic recycling goes to UK landfills?

The British Plastic Federation suggests 17% of the UK’s plastic waste goes to landfill. Most plastic does not decompose, meaning it is likely to remain in those landfills for thousands of years.

How much is incinerated?

The British Plastic Federation claims 46% of the UK’s plastic waste is incinerated, while Channel 4′s Dispatches claimed 11% of all UK household waste is sent to be incinerated.

Plastic is considered one of the worst materials to burn as it contributes to air pollution and toxic smoke, making it a serious environmental hazard.

Recycling in Poland
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Recycling in Poland

Why is plastic packaging particularly damaging?

Plastic can be ingested by animals, which could block up their internal systems, or even poison wildlife if not correctly disposed of.

Why are the UK’s eco-efforts in the spotlight?

Countries around the globe are focusing on their green efforts after the UN released a harrowing report in August explaining how the climate crisis had arrived and that, unless drastic action is taken, the world’s temperature will increase indefinitely.

This is becoming an increasingly pressing issue as the clear evidence of climate change stacks up.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has promised that the UK will be a leading nation in the eco movement, a key vow considering Britain will be hosting the UN climate conference, COP26 next week.

But Science Advances claimed in 2020 that the “US and UK produce more plastic waste per person than any other major country”.

The UK has also been criticised for not putting its words into actions by renowned environmentalist, Greta Thunberg.

What should we do?

Greenpeace still encourages the public to continue recycling, but it is pushing for the government to drop all single-use plastic. The campaign group claims Downing Street’s previous pursuits against plastic straws and cotton bud sticks have little impact.

Greenpeace’s Maja Darlington also told HuffPost UK that Johnson is right in that recycling alone is not the answer.

She said: “We will not be able to recycle our way out of this mess. We need to turn off the tap of plastic pollution, and move to a system which prioritises reuse.”