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The Great Recycling Conspiracy

If pub conversations and online comments are anything to go by, everybody seems to know someone whose friend works in waste. And inevitably, with unimpeachable authority, that friend of a friend has let slip the unspeakable 'truth': recycling is a waste of time - it all ends up in a landfill anyway.

To me, this always seemed like Chinese whispers at best, enthusiastically greeted and repeated by those predisposed to distrust their local council, or with an agenda to push . Then I met at first hand my own sceptical insider. I was hovering at the bar of a tiny country pub and chatting to the man to my right who had, he said, just finished a ten-hour shift at the local recycling centre. When I told him that I worked for a company involved in recycling, he gave me a grave look and beckoned me closer; 'I don't want to get into trouble, but you should know that it's not all what it claims to be on the tin', he said. 'All the plastic bags that come our way, they go straight to the landfill. It's all about money, and there's no money in plastic bags.'

I'm new to this game, so I perked up at this information. This was an inside source from a recycling centre, blowing the whistle on what he claimed was malpractice. He told he would send me photos to prove it, so I scribbled my phone number on a beer mat and then left him to his pint.

On Monday morning, I looked up his council's website. In big, bold letters, they listed the things they 'unfortunately not able to take' for recycling; among them, plastic bags. Of course, that leaves open the question of why the council doesn't offer this service (which I'll return to). But while my source was right - carrier bags are being landfilled - his "leak" was hardly a scandalous revelation, just something that anyone with 30 seconds and a search engine could find out.

He was also right that recycling is driven by money; recyclables are recycled because it is the cheapest available option. When the council gives you a list of materials that can be recycled, those materials have been chosen as it makes more financial sense to recycle them than to send them to a landfill. Landfill tax is over £82 per tonne and rising with inflation, and typically there's a gate fee of £15-20 per tonne on top. The UK now incinerates more municipal waste than it landfills, but median incineration gate fees are also around £100 per tonne.

Most separated recycling (paper, card, plastic, cans), on the other hand, has a significant sell-on value. On top of that, sending co-mingled recycling for sorting is much less costly than disposing of it as residual waste. So why would increasingly cash strapped councils ever choose to pay to dispose of material when they could be paid to recycle? In general, it is as simple as that - simple economics, far more than environmental conscience, dictates that if something can be recycled, it most probably will be.

What's true for waste in the UK also applies when recycling is exported. What Chinese businessman would pay to ship recycling all the way from England purely for the pleasure of burying it in a landfill?


So where do the rumours to the contrary come from? They seem to have origins in five commonly reported errors.

1. Misunderstandings about what is "recyclable": my barroom informant isn't the only one to get mixed up about this. Materials like plastic bags, polystyrene packaging and paper coffee cups can in theory be recycled, but for logistical and economic reasons the economic case only really makes sense when clean material is available in quantity. That won't be the case for post-consumer household waste, and so for most councils these are impractical materials to collect for recycling, whether at the kerbside or at the tip. Some newspapers seem to think that anything that gets put in a recycling bin should be recycled, but when people put the wrong things in they will need to be removed somewhere along the line, so that the rest can be reprocessed successfully.

2. Misunderstandings about council services: I recently read that "Rubbish sorted for recycling in Sevenoaks is being burnt in an incinerator rather than reused." As it turns out, the reality was that at one civic amenity site, a special arrangement was put in place over Christmas so that people could bring their recycling in rather than wait for the next bin collection. Ordinarily, there isn't space for a recycling container on the site, but over the festive period little garden waste gets dropped off, so some space is changed over to dry recycling. When a few residents brought recycling to the dump in late January, the service had switched back to normal, and the only options available were to put the recycling in the residual waste - or to take it home and put it in the recycling bin. There were no false pretences, and no routine practice of incinerating recycling.

3. Misunderstandings about transfer stations: You often hear that rubbish and recycling lorries all go to the same place. That can be true, but as long as the depot or transfer station has bays where different materials are kept separate, that's no evidence that they all end up together in landfill.

4. Misreporting of studies: A number of newspaper stories about recycling being landfilled in the UK and overseas have originated in misinterpretations of a WRAP report about UK materials reprocessors' attitudes to material originating from UK MRFs. This mistake has been analysed here.

5. Unusual situations being remembered as the norm: Demand for recyclables is volatile, and prices rise and fall in line with the commodities. Occasionally, it has been difficult to find markets for recycling. Even in this situation there is little evidence of recyclables heading for the landfill or incinerator. Rather, when prices crashed in 2008, there were rumours that 'huge waste mountains could be sited on military bases under emergency plans to protect Britain's recycling revolution from the economic downturn'. Things never actually got that bad, but for a time it was a real concern.

Despite having the scantest basis in fact, the myth that recycling ends up in landfill is strangely persistent: a Chinese whisper that just won't go away. It is one of many myths and conspiracies about the environment, and over the coming weeks and months I will be coming back here to bust them, one by one.

In the meantime, let me know in the comments if you know of any other environmental myths that require a closer look.

A version of this article was first published on Isonomia.