Plastic recycling is a horrible idea, so we should cease doing it until we know where it will end up. Instead, we ought to dispose of plastic in landfills.
Although it might sound like a tremendously hot opinion, this is not. In my opinion, it is generally accepted by those who research these issues. Although there is a lot of plastic in the oceans, which is undesirable, none of it originates from British landfills. Almost all of it originates in developing nations, and by recycling, we exacerbate the issue.
In the United Kingdom, 0.5% of plastic trash is “mismanaged”—that is, it is left in open landfills, dumped into the environment, or left as litter. In India, however, that percentage is over 20%, which is 400 times greater. China, at roughly 19%, is comparable.
This percentage is roughly 6.5% in the Philippines, which is still more than 100 times higher than the United Kingdom average but not quite as pronounced. The Philippines, however, are a group of tiny islands, so it is simple for plastic waste to enter their little rivers and end up in the ocean. Similar to other countries, Malaysia has fewer issues with improperly handled trash, yet a sizable portion of it ends up in the ocean. Therefore, it is likely that the typical piece of plastic produced in one of those nations will wind up in the ocean.
Until China decided to stop accepting it in 2018, a significant portion of “recycled” plastic from the West was exported to that country. Then wealthy nations began sending it to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. But in those nations, more than 80% of plastic garbage is improperly disposed of. They meticulously recycle the rubbish that the West sends to them, which is surprising given how much of their own waste ends up in the rivers.
A few of those nations have now drastically reduced the amount of plastic they import. Other nations have joined in as a result, frequently nations with limited capacity to recycle their own plastics. A significant number of US waste currently travels to Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia, and Senegal, according to a 2019 investigation by a respected news publication.
According to research published this year, 6000 tonnes of the 37000 tonnes of plastic food packaging that the Netherlands exports each year end up in the ocean.
Recycling isn’t always done this way. There are sophisticated plastic recycling facilities in the United Kingdom. Some plastic is recycled in the nations that dispose of it. But a significant portion of it is exported.
In the meantime, plastic that is thrown in a non-recycling bin in the United Kingdom is transferred to a landfill after being placed in a wheelie bin and collected up by a trash lorry. The bottom of modern landfills is made of high strength “geotextile” materials, which prevent liquids from seeping out and into the groundwater. They are divided into smaller compartments called cells, and as each cell is filled, a thick clay cap is placed on top to prevent the contents from escaping. Methane is released as the contents decompose, but it is either burned off or trapped and used as energy. And nothing from that landfill will get into the sea.
Additionally, there isn’t a serious scarcity of room to build additional landfills. Once your landfill is full, you can cover it and farm on it, construct a golf course there, or do whatever else you choose.
How Can I Help?
We can and should make an effort to use less plastic, but only up to a certain point. Many of the plastic products we use are really beneficial. For example, plastic food packaging helps us use less food, and disposable plastic bags are much more affordable and energy-efficient than heavy-duty canvas totes. An organic cotton bag needs to be used 150 times more than a supermarket plastic bag before it is energy efficient. Cheap plastic bags are probably overall better for the environment than more expensive ones; nevertheless, if disposed of in United Kingdom landfills, they won’t wind up in the sea.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and bioengineering technologies, which can effectively select recyclable materials and disintegrate polymers into useable chemicals, respectively, will likely improve plastic recycling in the future. When we get to that stage, we need to make sure we follow through. It’s not like we couldn’t even salvage old plastic from landfills; after all, it’s not like it’s going anywhere.
Additionally, recycling metal is a good concept in general, so we should keep doing it.
However, as things stand, too much of what we “recycle” ends up in the oceans off the coast of east Asia. That is not ideal. Better than you may imagine is landfill.