For the sake of the climate we must stop believing magical stories about plastics and recycling

When applied to single-use the circular economy is a myth, and an increasingly harmful one

A dump site in Ipoh in which plastics from UK recycling bins was found among stacks of discarded plastic nearly 20ft high. Photo: Unearthed

At Smugglers Way, a recycling centre on the south bank of London’s river Thames, a worker stands next to a fast-moving conveyor trying desperately to sort the city’s recycling. 

She’s paid less than London’s living wage on a pay-as-you-go contract. She fears if she doesn’t meet the target – to pick at least one item every two seconds – she may not be at work next week. Cameras follow her  – she never knows when she’s being watched. This is not a high-margin business.

Her job is to pick out the stuff that shouldn’t be there: the nappies, the toilet brushes and the things that perhaps could be recycled but are too contaminated. It’s a hard thing to judge and sometimes, paper, plastic or entire unopened recycling sacks go in the bin as workers seek to avoid contamination. Other times colleagues fear materials which should be taken off pass them rapidly by. 

Five miles north BP chief executive Bob Dudley is presenting the company’s latest review of world energy data. There are also plenty of cameras. 

Global carbon dioxide emissions keep rising, thanks, in part, to a rise in demand for oil-derived petrochemicals of the kind largely used to make plastics. For Dudley, this is no bad thing. As demand for oil to be burnt slows, the company sees a rise in “non-combusted” oil – used for plastics and other products – driving growth. 

In the oil giant’s latest energy projections the use of oil for plastics is the single largest source of new demand over the next 20 years, even assuming tighter regulation on plastic use and disposal by governments.

But the question is – how tight exactly? In the same forecast, BP noted a global ban on single-use plastics would cut demand growth for liquid fuels by 80%. Unsurprisingly the company warned such a ban could have “unintended consequences”.

Faced with that reality oil companies want to make sure that plastic production isn’t curtailed by governments eco-sensitivities, and are teaming up with recycling firms to try and reduce the impact of plastic waste on the environment. A global alliance of companies including Shell, Exxon and waste giant Veolia have committed $1bn over the next 5 years to improving waste processing infrastructure, mostly in the far east where plastic “leakage” into the oceans is greatest.

At the same time, helped by cheap gas from fracking, the oil giants in the group are also investing billions in facilities designed to meet the predicted demand for ever more plastics – including mega-projects to feed demand in South East Asia. On current trends, much of that will be single-use and designed – at best – to be recycled. That’s if things go well: so far only 9% of the plastic used in the world has been reprocessed.

Our trust in recycling as a solution to the mass consumption of single-use products requires some magical thinking. As we put our bag or box outside somewhere in our mind do we wonder: why are so few things I buy are actually recycled? How will anyone sort out this medley of smashed glass and dessert pots? In the UK – for example – just two brands use 100% recycled content in their bottles. 

Yet we are often encouraged not to dwell too hard. When we publish stories about the failures or limitations of recycling we are often warned by companies and government bodies that we risk “putting people off;”. This is an argument for an industry to avoid scrutiny on the grounds adults cannot hold two ideas in their head at the same time. 

Instead, we’re told, recycling is all part of the “circular economy”: another buzz-phrase for Shell and its partners whose first goal is to “enable the circular economy” in South East Asia.

Circular? That’s a powerful mental image to put out there. 

Making products recyclable at the end of their life; encouraging them to be recycled and – crucially – making new products from recycled materials is important to lowering emissions. But this is not a circle, especially not when it starts with the mass production of new, disposable, products using oil.

The UK is no world leader in dealing with recycling – but it’s far more advanced than the countries targeted by Shell and its alliance partners. That plant in Smugglers Way was uncontroversially described as “state of the art”. It claims to process 99% of recyclable material coming in and frequently welcomes visitors to witness its modern, efficient facility.   

But even in the UK there is only so close you can go before the magic starts to wane. Transparency is limited. 

We know – because councils check – how contaminated our recycling bags are going into a waste plant to be sorted, but the effectiveness of that process is harder to gage. In the UK the level of contamination in the bales of recycling going out is commercially confidential.

Into the gaps flow more complex versions of those same nagging questions we experience as we put out our recycling bag. 

Recycling that is contaminated is hard to process, the spectrum of what counts as contamination is pretty wide. In one case, we were told, it includes fluid in an open water bottle. One way or another much of the waste in recycling bags gets burned or dumped far away. 

Last year we discovered mountains of recycling – including a lot of British, American and European packaging – apparently abandoned and heavily contaminated in a Malaysian dump. It’s a phenomenon that has been repeated again and again around the world as countries scramble to close their doors to imports.

As one local campaigner in Malaysia told Unearthed: “You [developed countries] have so-called high recycling rates; as citizens do you know where your plastic waste and pollution ends up? It’s in other people’s countries, affecting other people’s children.” 

As the problems with plastics and sorting become harder to export, they have become more visible in the west. UK councils now admit a significant percentage of material which can – in theory – be recycled is actually burnt instead for want of anyone to buy it and turn it into something useful.

Even the stuff that makes it through has a limited shelf life. There are only so many times a product can be recycled. Each time the quality goes down, there are fewer uses for it and it becomes harder to process. After that, still assuming the very best of cases, it must take its next step in the circular economy and be burnt to produce energy, ‘offsetting’ emissions elsewhere.

Except that, in economies trying to rid themselves of carbon emissions for power, burning rubbish to produce energy does not “offset” emissions from fossil fuels, it just adds to them.

That’s the thing with calling oil for plastic “non-combusted” (not burnt). Any single use plastic is, even in the best case, eventually combusted, either that or it is dumped; often ending up floating about polluting ecosystems whilst slowly releasing CO2 or disrupting the ocean’s carbon absorption in ways science is only just beginning to understand. 

In fact, “non-combusted” oil products like single-use plastics are even more carbon-intensive to make than they are to burn. When you add it all together greenhouse gas emissions from plastics alone could equate to 1517% of global emissions by 2050. In 2019 the life-cycle emissions from plastic products will be equal to roughly 189 coal plants. Much of that comes from the production of the resin, using oil and gas as a ‘feedstock’ – a source of emissions that won’t reduce even if we decarbonise.

Other single-use products are little better or worse – they are all a climate issue. As the IPCC suggested in key scenarios, to limit climate change western nations must reduce material consumption.

Maybe the circular economy can be improved. Household contamination could somehow be eliminated, recycling plants could employ armies of high paid, high skilled pickers and – because it’s in fashion right now – machine learning robots. But even then; robots can’t alter the reality that the plastic would degrade and – eventually – be burnt. If the costs of all this were added to the products nobody sane would sell anything for single use.

As the Centre for International and Environmental Law put it rather soberly; ”recycling alone will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle commensurate with the reductions necessary to meet the Paris Agreement. “

Put another way, calling the production, recycling and eventual incineration of single-use plastic circular only makes sense if you define the circle in question as starting at some point in the Jurassic period and forget about everything that must happen at the end. 

The narrative of the circular economy is an assault on language which can blind us to reality allowing the mass-production of plastics from oil to fly below the radar of action on climate change.