We all do it from time to time, some of us more than others. We collect a chilled meal from the supermarket because it is a pretty hassle-free way of getting something to eat. The meals often come in black plastic trays, which we later conscientiously put in the recycling box for collection. So far, so good. But what Shropshire Council don’t tell you is that Veolia incinerates black plastic rather than recycles it.
You must drill deep into Shropshire Council’s website to find that black plastic is not recycled. It’s not mentioned on the door-to-door leaflets or the recycling and rubbish webpage. But if you have time to dig into the FAQs, you’ll find the information, though somewhat buried. The council told me in January:
“Unfortunately we are still unable to recycle black plastic. This is because the optical sensors used at sorting facilities are unable to distinguish black plastic. This is then classed as a reject which is then incinerated and turned into electricity. This is where it would go if it was put in the general rubbish bin. The information was not put on the latest leaflet as it was aimed at being more positive about recycling only showing what can go into the recycling box. If people do put black plastics in the recycling this will be taken but we cannot promote that it can be recycled.”
In my view, we undermine the integrity of recycling if people think that materials are destined for reuse when in truth they are going to incinerated in an energy to waste plant. Not being open about this goes against WRAP’s guidelines – WRAP is the national recycling champion.
The solution to this problem needs to be a national one. It is possible to add a colourant to black plastic trays to ensure they can be detected in recycling facilities. But the retail, packaging and recycling industries are only just beginning to invest in the technology required, though trials have taken place. Part of the reason for this is that most people don’t realise that when they buy ready meals, the plastic packaging is not recyclable.
Shropshire council should be more open about which plastics can and can’t be recycled. And it must lobby the food, packaging and recycling industries to ensure that black plastic can in future be recycled.
Black plastic to one side, government statistics show that Shropshire is in the top 40 local authorities for recycling (rank 38). In 2015/16, the unitary council recycled 55% of our household waste. Just 7% is sent to landfill. The rest is incinerated to generate energy at either Battlefield or Four Ashes in Staffordshire. The unitary council outperforms Telford and Wrekin (48% recycled; 51% landfilled) and England as a whole (44% recycled). The reintroduction of cardboard recycling after five year’s absence should improve Shropshire’s recycling rates.
We don’t as well with non-household waste – for example, construction debris. Just 37% of this is recycled in Shropshire. Ninety-five local authorities do better than us – even Telford and Wrekin recycles 39%.
We need a bold vision to turn waste into economic and environmental profit, locally and nationally. But the portents are not good.
Greenpeace reports the government slashed national recycling targets for plastic by 6% after lobbying from the plastics industry. The Policy Exchange, once said to be David Cameron’s favourite think tank, has called for plans for a circular economy to be shelved. It complained the drive to reduce, reuse and recycle would cost money. It missed the point that capturing and using scarce resources will be a significant part of the future economy. And the North London Waste Authority, one of biggest recycling operations in London, has bemoaned the weakness of the recently published government industrial strategy, which fails to set a strong direction for recycling and the circular economy. The government is not alone. Shropshire Council’s draft economic strategy makes no mention of recycling and the circular economy at all.
Recycling rates are improving. But we are a still a long way from embedding the need to reduce, reuse and recycle into our local and national economies.