What Happens To Our Waste? Case Study Of Plastic And Paper


This question has been bugging me for sometime and I am always led to wonder what happens to our waste?

Many of us in the UK recycle, it is part of council legislation in most cities and people can potentially be fined for not utilizing or mis-using this facility.

In Newcastle upon Tyne, where I live, we have the two bin system in most areas. We have a green bin for non-recyclable trash and a blue bin with a bucket in the top for recycle-ables, batteries and glass. The system is pretty simple, with a single-sided pamphlet providing you with information about what can and can’t be recycled and where in the bin it should go.

Personally I think this pamphlet could provide a little more information because, with so many disposable items in the market place, there is a wealth of materials that can be recycled but may NOT be recycled by your local council and others that you associate with being recycle-ables that aren’t.

I have for many years lived in shared housing and for the best part my housemates have always recycled well. In some instances, however, cartons, plastic screen envelopes, yoghurt pots, bottle caps and plastic vegetable punnets to name a few have found there way into the bin. All of these things can be recyled, for instance cartons, but does not mean they always are and some have no associated recycle-able instructions yet may seem just as recycle-able as your plastic bottle – why? because it is plastic.

It refreshing in the least to know that recycling sorting facilities have grown in number and spread across the UK to tackle what is essentially a problem with sorting at the source but I find, given the lack of information on pamphlets and the ignorance of the general public on matters of waste, they are crucial to achieving recycling targets (currently set at recycling 50% of household waste by 2020) and to move waste away from landfill.

The waste management industry was estimated to be valued at £12 billion between 2011/12. O’briens the waste sorting facility based in Newcastle has strong ties with industrial and council based waste contracts. They presently have a highly efficient work force who sort through conveyered waste streams with a success rate of 98% going on to further recycling facilities.

While this is comforting it still makes me wonder where this material goes to actually be recycled?

Paper Recycling

Paper is a commonly recycled commodity in the UK, and Europe as a whole holds strong credentials for pro-paper recycling facilities. Many European paper collectors are now exporting products to the Far East with China importing some 24.4million tons in 2010.

While I would agree this is counter-productive to the green side of recycling, it shows that Europe on average has good industrial practice and industries that are economically viable, allowing for the successful recycling of paper waste.

The UK has a strong hold of 75.9% of its paper production utilizing recovered paper fibers. As the UK’s paper industry is mostly based on recycling due to lack of virgin wood resources, its comforting to know that our paper can be and some will be processed on UK soil.

Plastic Recycling

Plastic is of far greater concern, with much being exported to the Far East for recycling.

Some 25.2 million tons of plastic waste are generated in Europe annually. With such vast quantities of plastic waste around, China has began importing material from the EU and this is likely driven by better price offered for the material and a push for recycling goals from the EU waste directive.

Plastic is a big grower, with the world seeing a rise from 1.7 million tons produced in the 50’s to 288 million tons some 60 years later. It paints a complicated picture because there are different types of plastic and co-mingled plastic products which make for a far more complex recycling story.

Plastic production in Europe accounts for 20.5% of the world’s production with China in first at 23.9% as of 2012.

The EU’s market for plastic production has seen a down swing from a 2011 peak with much plastic falling into the PET and PE categories (in short plastic bottles, lids, containers, bags – the most commonly used plastic commodities). This is what is the most commonly recycled plastic as not all types can be readily recycled. It is unfortunate to note that the plastics industry does not have the same economic incentives that glass, paper and metal do.

Europe is still a net exporter of plastic, which does ring true positively because it shows it has the industry in place to re-use the recycled plastic. The only problem with this is that much of this recovered plastic is not truly recycled as it goes straight to waste-to-energy incinerators.

In Europe, the overall collection of plastic packaging waste was 69.2% and 34.5% of this went to energy recovery. In the UK the waste to energy was significantly lower at only 9% but only a total of around 31% was recovered, the rest went to landfill.

Europe is a good producer but problems with collection, sorting and quality push plastic into landfill. Data floating around seems to think plastic that goes to waste-to-energy plants is recycling and China has been estimated to import 200,000 Tons of UK plastic waste, which is alarming as the UK is estimated to send around 69% of its plastic to landfill of around 3 million tons of waste it produces annually. In the UK many recycling plants have closed down due to a lack of profit. This is bleak to say the least because it means most of our plastic goes to landfill and the stuff that is recycled probably has to go along way, erasing the real recycling benefits.

Paper is a recycling winner but we can only hope that the years the paper industry has spent developing will also begin to show in the plastic recycling industry.

About the Author Kelly Millward

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