The information about current recycling rates in the UK is not as bad as you might imagine; according to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the rates of household recycling is gradually increasing. In 2016, it reached 45.2% in 2016, which was an increase of 0.6% from the previous year. DEFRA is also keen to stress that the UK is on track to meet its EU target to recycle at least 50% of household waste by 2020.
But, hang on a minute, why do we need to have such set goals to ensure we are recycling ‘enough’? As a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person, even reaching a goal of recycling 50% of our waste still means that 50% of our waste is not being recycled.
What is happening to the rest of the waste that we are not recycling? A large amount ends up being washed into our waterways and seas, with devastating effects on the marine environment and our sea life. Currently, 12.2 tonnes of plastic waste end up in the seas around the world every year. It takes 450 years for a piece of plastic to decompose, and the process is itself harmful. Plastic breaks into ‘micro-plastics’, tiny plastic particles that poison the water, killing our wildlife including birds and fish.
From watching the footage of Blue Planet 2, it would be hard for anyone to not be moved by the effects of plastic on marine wildlife. This included albatross parents feeding their chicks on bits of plastic, and dolphins ingesting plastic, meaning that their babies, in turn, drink milk contaminated by plastic.
But the news is not all doom and gloom – time and time again, the message that keeps coming back is that we can take action, reduce reuse and recycle that little bit more and change will happen.
At the very end of last year, the UK banned the use of microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products. These beads get flushed into the seas, pollute the marine environment and cause catastrophic harm. Thanks to this ban, there is now a significantly reduced risk from microbeads to our environment.
Plastic bags are another well-known environmental hazard, frequently ending up in the sea and then being mistaken by animals as food and ingested, poisoning or choking them.
Yet, since major UK supermarkets introduced a 5p charge for a single-use plastic carrier bag in October 2015, the number of plastic bags they sell has decreased by 83%.
Single-use hot drink cups are the next area to be targeted. These are currently un-recyclable, but early in 2018 MPs called for a 25p tax for using these to be included on top of the price of a drink. Starbucks has begun trailing a ‘latte levy’ of 5p on top of hot drinks in takeaway cups in 35 of their London branches. Time will tell if this will encourage a change our to switch to reusable cups.
Apart from these policy and legal changes happening, what can we do in our everyday lives to recycle more? Quite a lot, as it turns out, and often quite simple changes:
I'll certainly be working to do these going forwards! Only making a few changes will help to reduce the amount of plastic, which will add up. Large-scale change has to start somewhere!
View our infographic on waste in our knowledge hub.