David Newman has worked since 1988 on environmental issues. He worked with the late Greenpeace founder David McTaggart for 13 years, ran Greenpeace Italy 1995-1997, worked for the Italian Minister of Environment as Advisor, ran the Italian national association for composting and biogas until 2014 and established the Italian bioplastics association and ran it until 2015. He was President of the International Solid Waste Association from 2012 until 2016. He is currently President of the World Biogas Association and founded and runs the UK Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association promoting bio-materials. He is Advisor to Ditto Sustainability Ltd and to several companies in the field of waste and resource management. He lives and works in London.
“Plastics plastics everywhere but ne’er a drop to …recycle”. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner would never recognise the oceans of today, full of floating plastic waste. Some 8,9,10 million, who knows how many tonnes of plastics end up in the oceans each year, floating down on river systems from open dumps in Asia, Africa, Latin America and yes, from littering in the UK, Europe and North America too. Even here in the UK where waste is generally collected well, plastics finish in rivers and into the sea. We are in the middle of an ecological disaster of our own making and it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Let’s be clear: most plastic waste finishing in the environment is due to poor waste management systems in developing countries, as the 2015 report from the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Solid Waste Association called “Global Waste Management Outlook”, clearly illustrated. The failure of waste management across 70% of the Planet is causing this mess. But we are also contributing here in the wealthy countries like Britain due to failures in waste collection, allowing littering, encouraging the use of throw-away materials. Blue Planet II has awoken our conscience on the issue of marine pollution, now what to do about it ?
It is complicated, but let’s try to explain.
Plastic costs very little to produce, a by- product of oil, and therefore intrinsically has low value once used. Designed to be thrown away afterwards, no-one back in the 1950s and 1960s dreamt of plastic recycling when plastics first became ubiquitous. It was to be thrown away, full stop. Then came the first environmental policies in the 1970s and 1980s which focused attention upon the need to manage waste rather than simply dump it as we did until then. Finally, as we focused on the limits of resources on the Planet, we started to recycle. Meanwhile plastic production grew and grew, now reaching over 300 million tonnes a year.
Plastics are cheap, which is why they are so successful, so plastic waste logically also has little or no value. Certain specific very clean streams, like PET bottles (water bottles) when collected separately, and kept clean, can be resold and recycled. There are 7 main types of plastic polymer, according to WRAP (http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/types-plastic), but within these categories thousands of variations, as polymers are mixed, stuck together, stuck on paper or aluminium. So effectively, you can only really recycle one or two types, PET and HDPE as long as they are clean and not contaminated with other materials and products, like foodstuffs.
And here’s the wrap (excuse the pun). Most plastics are contaminated either by the material they are stuck to, like paper; or by what they contain, like food. This is why recycling plastic is so hard. Moreover, if you collect plastics with other materials, like paper, glass, cardboard, you will get contamination from these in the mix, reducing the recyclability of each of them. Currently the UK claims to recycle some one third of all plastics entering the market (http://www.bpf.co.uk/sustainability/plastics_recycling.aspx) but the reality is very different. Indeed, plastic films such as carrier bags and wrapping, are barely recycled at all. Overall plastic recycling, by which I mean effectively actually recycled in a plant and coming out again as a plastic polymer, I would think it no more than 15% of all plastic waste in the UK.
Let’s add to this another layer of information. Where does the recycling really take place ? Actually we find that the plastics collected for recycling effectively have been sent abroad, mostly to China. Indeed, half of our “collected for recycling plastics” have gone East for decades. The environmental standards and conditions in which they are recycled there are disastrous for the local habitat, with waste plastic ending up in rivers, burning plastic emitting smoke and toxins into the atmosphere, and local populations inhaling the emissions. Partly for this reason in 2018 China stopped these imports.
Which leaves us up the river without the proverbial paddle.
Meanwhile we are collecting for recycling materials which can barely be recycled due to contamination, have zero value, and for which we do not have the recycling facilities anyway. Want to know the secret ? Most of this plastic is going to incineration to produce energy or to our landfills, or being baled and sent to incinerators in northern Europe.
Another major waste stream is impacted by plastic waste: food waste. Throughout the UK (but not in all of England) households separately collect their food waste which gets sent to composting or to anaerobic digestion where it produces biogas, that can be used as a fuel for heating, for making electricity, or for transport. About 800,000 tonnes out of the 7.5 million tonnes of food waste arising in the UK are separately collected and go to treatment. The rest goes to landfill and incinerators.
Much of the food waste gets collected with plastic bags- these are stripped out at the plant and send to landfill or incineration. About 10 % of the food waste collected in weight is plastics, and as plastics cannot be composted or made into biogas, they need to be eliminated from the processes. This costs a lot of money both in the process and for disposal costs. I calculate some £27 million a year currently in plastic waste elimination in food waste collections. But each time plastics are stripped out they leave residues which remain in the biogas by-product (digestate) or in the compost. Microplastics then end up on our soils. Regulations allow an incredible 11 kilos of microplastics per hectare of land to be legally spread to soil- seems not much? But 11 kilos is about 1000 carrier bags. Imagine seeing a field covered in a thousand carrier bags, imagine what it looks like. Except with microplastics, you can’t see them so easily.
Hmmm, complicated eh? Plastics no-one wants to recycle, food waste contaminated by plastics, fields full of plastics.
Add a third layer to this. Soil quality. We produce 95% of our food from the land. Sure, we could all eat algae and do away with land and what it produces: grain, bread, milk and meat, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, wine, beer, as well as non - food like wool, cotton, timber. We could presumably live in a world where all our protein is produced in laboratories, as astronauts do. I hope it never happens. Given the importance of soil to us all, you’d think we’d protect it as a precious resource no? Wrong. We deplete in the UK alone nearly 3 million tonnes of topsoil a year, washed away due to intensive farming and not replaced. Once upon a time farming was less intensive, but also animals lived on the farm and their manure went back to soil. No longer so much, and according to Mr Gove, our Minister, we have just some 30 years of crops left in the soil before we have exhausted it.
So? What has this to do with plastics?
Plastics, food waste, compost, soil, food. It is a chain. If we pollute our soils with microplastics we will produce less food and/or contaminate it; if we instead collected our food waste (about 90% now is not collected) cleanly, without plastics contamination, and send it to composting and back to soil as compost, we could re-establish the chain of replenishing our soil. Indeed, we could more or less get 3 million tonnes a year out of all the food waste we throw away and back to soil. Bingo!
We’d also solve a lot of other problems. Less Co2 emissions from landfills (when food rots in a landfill it emits greenhouse gases); less incineration of food and less Co2 emissions (burning anything emits greenhouse gas emissions); less plastic waste, as eliminating food waste from mixed waste makes sorting and recycling the other waste easier.
To get clean food waste collection however, we cannot continue to use plastics. Other countries, such as Italy and Belgium, use a new generation of certified compostable bio-plastics which compost naturally with the food and breakdown into water and humus. They are not to be confused with cheap alternatives pretending to be biodegradable, we need to ensure they are effectively certified compostable with a UK standard known as EN13432. This would eliminate soil pollution from microplastics. We need biobags for the collection of food waste, urgently.
Sounds hard? Yes, it is not easy, but if the Italians, Belgians, Catalonians, Californians, and many others can collect their food waste separately, cleanly and compost it, so can we.
As for the plastics that cannot go through this route, we should tax the hell out of them so that the tax income can pay for them to be collected, not littered, recycled, not dumped, and treated here in the UK where we make and use them, not sent on a ship to Cambodia or Vietnam hoping for the best. Did you know that currently plastics producers in the UK pay an environmental tax to pay for collection that is roughly one tenth of those of other major European economies? Shameful.
You see, it is all connected. And in the end it all comes down to money. As no-one ever wants to spend anything, then we need Government to legislate to compel change. Otherwise, forget going to the beach in a few years time, there won’t be any room.
David Newman is President of the World Biogas Assoication and founded the UK Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association promoting bio-materials. He is Advisor to Ditto Sustainability Ltd and to several companies in the field of waste abnd resource management.
The SERA blog regularly hosts content for SERA members and stakeholders - the views represented are the personal views of David Newman. If you would like to write for the SERA blog please get in touch: [email protected]