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Recycling: a waste of time?

Updated: Jul 3

Recycling is a relatively low-effort way to show you care about the environment. Society has taught us that you shouldn’t feel guilty about disposal of that drinks can, that crisp packet or that takeaway box… as long as you put it in the recycling bin at the end of the day. Recycling rates have plateaued in the UK at 44%, and it is thought that figures are overestimated by a third due to incorrect measurement of total waste. If this is the case, the UK would not have passed the EU threshold for recycling before 2012 and may not be much above the threshold even today.

People don’t realise a large fraction of ‘recyclable’ waste material will not be recycled at all. This is partly due to technology constraints, the inability of sorting machinery to process plastic film or detect black plastic, and food contamination in waste. What you put in your recycling bin is still at risk of ending up in landfill or being exported to countries abroad, adding to ever growing marine pollution. In 2016, 7.3 million tonnes of waste was imported into China, primarily from the UK, USA and Japan. This is unethical, dangerous and in some cases unlawful. 

Waste export bans threaten UK recycling infrastructure as it may be unable to keep up with a sudden increase in processing demand. An undercover study in a London waste recycling plant found that employees are expected to remove 35 pieces of unrecyclable waste from a conveyor every minute to put into general waste. The time pressure results in recyclable items being incinerated. Current sorting is clearly not adequate, something needs to change. Investment in new recycling technologies is essential. 

The one-use plastic ban on items such as disposable straws from 2020 will in no doubt make a difference to waste amounts, but in reality this makes up a tiny fraction of annual waste. Chemical recycling offers a solution for remaining rubbish, and is seen as a game-changer for plastics in the fight towards a circular economy. 

BIG ATOM, a polymer recycling company, are implementing a pioneering chemical process to break down plastics and tyres into raw materials to close the gap between disposal and manufacture and establish a circular economy. Scaling up of this technology which will contribute to a decrease in the fraction of waste reaching landfill, ensuring efforts to recycle translate into tangible benefits.

Mia Read


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