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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Why can't we recycle all this plastic?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Online

A trip to the shops these days is likely to result in almost as much packaging as food. And once used, these wrappers, bags and trays are destined for the bin. Ever tried to find a place to recycle plastics in the UK? It's a fruitless mission.

    Shopping list: Nectarines, kiwifruit, avocado, goat's cheese, baked potatoes, sliced ham, olives, and cheesecake for afters.
    Rubbish generated: four plastic bags, clingfilm, six plastic pots, trays - one polystyrene foam, two plastic and one pulped cardboard - a cake-shaped plastic box and a cardboard box with plastic windows, all packed into a plastic carrier bag.

So what to do with this lot once lunch has been scoffed? Straight into the bin it goes. While we are encouraged - and will soon be required by law - to recycle our waste, it is not always straightforward to put this into practice.

The one tray made from cardboard is biodegradable and can be composted (by those with gardens). While the local supermarket has a collection point for carrier bag recycling, no other type of plastic is accepted.

Our purchases unwrapped
There's more packaging than food
Down the road at the recycling centre, there are bins for newspapers, aluminium cans, glass, even clothing and shoes, but not plastics. The local council is not much help either; plastic isn't included in its kerbside collection.

Yet this material makes up the bulk of our household waste. Each year, Britons get through 5m tonnes of plastic, barely one-tenth of which is recycled. Little wonder then that only Portugal and Greece fare worse than the UK in European league tables - the virtuous countries at the top have found uses for much of what we discard.

Waste not, want not

This weekend, the UN's annual Clean Up the World event will focus on litter prevention and reducing the use of plastic bags. Recycling is one way to stop rubbish piling up, so too is a crack down on over-wrapping.

"I've always said that supermarkets use far too much packaging," says Notting Hill resident, Eileen, a 73-year-old out doing her weekly shop. "Just look at this roast chicken - it's in a tray, which is in a bag, which is then bagged in plastic. They say it's for hygiene reasons but it wasn't needed in my day."

Brimming bin
11.3m plastic bottles collected for recycling since 1989
49% of UK councils run collection schemes for bottles
This includes 4,100+ bottle banks and kerbside pick-up for 3.6m+ homes
Recoup figures

Over-packaged fruit and veg, too, riles her. "What they used to do - and still do at market stalls - is weigh what you need and pop it all in a bag. The council did come round and ask if we wanted recycling - everybody was in favour of it, but nothing's happened."

The UK's problem with recycling plastic is not in finding a use for it. It's in getting it from the consumer to the reprocessing plant.

The cost of pick-up, storage and delivery far outweighs what local authorities can earn by taking plastics to be recycled - the only exception is drinks bottles, which are heavier than, say, yoghurt pots, and so are worth more.

In a survey by Recoup, the UK's household plastics recycling organisation, 75% of councils without a collection scheme blame the cost.

"It's a chicken and egg situation," says Claire Wilton, of Friends of the Earth. "There's not many reprocessors in the UK, so many councils find it's not worth collecting plastics. And because there's not much used plastic available, there are not many reprocessors."

Many uses

Alan Davey, of Linpac Plastics Recycling, says his firm - like the majority of others in this field - deals mainly with commercial and industrial waste.

Carrier bag
Bags made from maize - and other starches - break down faster
"All this food packaging of yours is recoverable but there's no effective subsidised collection system in the UK to make it worth the effort.

"If there was, we could turn it into car parts, video cassettes, shampoo bottles - we have 1,100 product applications. Anything that can be made from virgin plastic can be made from recycled plastic. The quality is the same."

Instead, much of it goes into landfill or up in smoke in an incinerator. Neither does the environment any favours. Plastic takes centuries to break down - not only taking up space but leaching toxins into the soil and water. And burning plastic is like burning a fossil fuel, as it is made from oil.

So if not plastic, then what? "A lot less packaging," says Ms Wilton, of Friends of the Earth. "Even biodegradable bags cause problems - unless you compost them at home - as they release methane, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases."

In the meantime, the thing that really has worked in cutting the amount of plastic used is tax. The success of Ireland's 15c tax on each supermarket bag - which has slashed bag usage and earned the Exchequer 11m euros - is expected to be repeated elsewhere.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

In Switzerland, plastic bottles for water and soft drinks have a deposit on them and can be returned for re-use, as can beer bottles and some wine bottles. Co-op Zurich doesn't even offer plastic bags - you can have paper, or buy a re-usable cotton one.
Lillian Adams, Essex, UK

Yesterday I bought some Listerine Active breath fresheners. The 24 wafer-thin mints came in a plastic box, in a plastic, cardboard and foil blister pack, in a cardboard sleeve. Will not be buying them again.
Joe Adams, UK

Perhaps consumer demand can help - all products mentioned in the article bar three - ham, cheesecake and olives - can be bought loose (or in a reuseable/recyleable glass jar in the case of the olives). It doesn't solve the wider issues of over-packaging and the UK's inadequate recycling programme, but by putting some thought into what we put into our basket we can make a real difference.
Carolyn, UK

Our district council (Huntingdonshire) does recycle all plastic, including carrier bags, which we put out in a special box every fortnight for collection. If they can do it, every other local council can.
Brian Havers, UK

Whilst visiting my Swiss girlfriend in Zurich years ago, she demonstrated a simple and effective way of encouraging supermarkets to deal with the packaging problem - take it off the product (wherever reasonably possible) and leave it with the supermarket, either at the checkout or, if they were clued-up, in a suitable recycling receptacle.
Richard, UK

Now that I go to the greengrocer, baker and butcher every week instead of the supermarket, our rubbish has dropped considerably while our costs in both time and money are much less. Quit blaming the supermarkets and make the choice yourself.
Phillip Holley, London

Everything in the supermarket is covered in plastic - there's a company that even sells bananas and oranges in plastic boxes! I regularly refuse plastic bags in shops, which seems to cause a great deal of trouble for the staff. In Debenhams, they tried to tell me that I had to take a bag. It was only when I said I wouldn't buy the product if they made me take a bag that they relented.
Jane, UK

I live in Tokyo where under strict local laws, we have to separate all out rubbish each week. Mondays are plastic items, Wed and Sat are everyday rubbish and food scraps, Thurs is cans, bottles, plastic bottles and polystyrene and even milk cartons. It was a pain at first, but after a few weeks it became a habit. The everyday plastics are reprocessed - I've heard they're turned into roofing and wall insulation, and even fleece fabric.
Jonny, Japan

Whilst with other fruit and veg, you can just put as much as you want in a bag, all organic fruit and veg is pre-packed in plastic. It's just daft when you could end up harming the environment more by buying organic than not!
Graham Bartlett, UK

I've lived in Germany & Belgium & was used to recycling. Here no-one wants to bother. Our local council have made a token attempt at recycling, but will only take tins paper & glass. I have mountains of plastic in the form of milk containers & drinks bottles. Why don't more people use their own shopping bags? I'm off shopping tonight with my cloth bags (still going strong 8 years after leaving Germany).
Margaret Mann, England

I work in Ireland during the week, where you have to pay 15c (about 10p) for a plastic carrier bag from the supermarket or local shop. It's amazing how few plastic bags you see lying around in Dublin compared with the UK. In addition most people carry a plastic bag with them to avoid having to buy another.
Roger Weatherley, England

We started some months back recycling plastic at ASDA/Tesco. We were surprised to see collection bins there, one for plastic & one for plastic bottles. We've been told that only bottles are affordable to recycle, the rest is dumped. Still, by taking plastic out of our wheelie bin, we can go three weeks before emptying.
Allan Robins, Hull

There are waste regulations that state that every stakeholder in a production chain, from producer to retailer, are responsible for recycling 50% of the packaging they produce. It's very hard to comply, and there is a penalty fine for non-compliance. In practice this becomes a packaging levy, where a supermarket has to pay £XX a year in fines for packaging they don't recycle. It's cheaper to pay the fine than comply with the regulations. Of course, the cost of the fine is added to the cost of the produce in the supermarket - so the consumer eventually pays for not recycling the packaging they don't want in the first place.
Adam Michael, UK

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