I am a fan of plastic. It has revolutionised modern lives and will continue to do so. I hate plastic. It is destroying our present and future environment. Some councils are stopping collecting it for recycling for fear it is dumped overseas or incinerated. However, most of Shropshire’s domestic plastic is recycled. But like plastic itself, the carbon chains are long. We should use less.
There has been a huge fuss in recent months over plastic in the oceans and rightly so. That has focused attention on plastic entering the oceans and being dumped in landfill. The hue and cry has increased in recent weeks since it was discovered that some of the material sent overseas is not recycled. Some countries have banned imports of recyclables, including China. That means rising costs for many local councils.
Swindon Council, which has never had a robust approach to recycling, plans to stop collecting plastics. It will incinerate the plastic instead. Basingstoke and Dean Council and Southampton Council are restricting plastic collections. Other councils have also become desperate to find processors of plastic.
What happens to Shropshire’s plastic?
If you put plastic in your black bin, it is incinerated at Battlefield.
Most plastic in our black boxes is recycled. Shropshire Council works on a mixed waste model. Glass metal and plastic is poured into the back of a Veolia wagon, compressed and taken to Four Ashes north of Wolverhampton. There a materials recovery facility (MRF) sorts the plastic from the metal and the glass.
Shropshire Council and Veolia estimate that 14,041 tonnes of mixed plastic, glass and metals was collected from the kerbside in 2017/18. The 14,000 tonnes included 2,312 tonnes of plastic of which 1,734 tonnes was plastic bottles and 422 tonnes of pots/tubs/trays/lids and tops. Not all material in recycling bins was suitable – around 3.5% was rejected including black plastic, plastic film and contaminated plastic. Those black food trays beloved by many supermarkets for ready meals can’t be identified by the infrared scanners that sort waste. The material that is not recycled is sent to the incinerator next door.
I am not a fan of incineration. It generates carbon emissions that are pretty much on par with those of fossil fuel power generation. But it is better than dumping plastic in the landscape or sea.
The recyclable plastic is then trucked 150 miles to Dagenham. There plastic is cleaned and shredded into small pieces, no bigger than a square centimetre. The plastic flakes are sorted on colour. The plastic is turned into pellets which are sold to manufacturers. Veolia says that costs are no more than manufacturing plastic from new. (Veolia video.) But the carbon chains are long.
None of the plastic from Shropshire is sent overseas, which is very good news.
The main way to tackle plastic pollution is to use less. Supermarkets are making pledges to phase out black plastic and reduce plastic use. Major festivals events are going plastic free. Single use bottles are being banned. Water fountains are being installed. The tax on single use carrier bags is set to double. All of this is good news but the main action should be everyone reducing plastic use.
We also need to avoid false comfort on our plastic using habits. A restaurant might boast that all its straws are biodegradable. Great. But does the restaurant ensure that the straws are composted? More often than not they will be incinerated. So, what was the point of being biodegradable?
As a dog owner, I think one of the worst follies is being taken in by biodegradable poo bags. It is possible to compost dog poo but that carries health dangers. Most responsible people put their poo bags in their black wheelie bins or in path side bins. The bags are then incinerated. There is no point in biodegradable bags unless you are planning to dump the dog poo in the open environment. That is a no, no. Very much no, no.
I think we do okay on plastic recycling in Shropshire. But we don’t do okay on our use of plastics. No one does. That is a debate we need to confront in our take away and throw away society.