Recycling; The Reality of Our Waste


Reality of Recycling Featured ImageIt’s more than likely that you recycle. I do, and I used to feel good about it. I take care to clean everything before recycling, and check what can and can’t go into the bags. The Government pushes recycling as an eco-friendly option to plastic waste, but is it?

According to the National Geographic, only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. A massive 79% is currently sitting in landfill sites around the world.

Around 12 months ago, China banned all foreign waste imports. When this was announced, I was confused. I’d not anticipated that our waste was being exported in the first place. As far as I was aware, our recycling was processed into new materials and so on. Looking back now, I was naïve.

BBC One’s War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita was eye-opening for me. I realised that things really aren’t all what they seem on the surface.

The Facts About Our Waste

In 2017, 45.2% of household waste was recycled. That’s less than half. It’s also speculated that councils are incinerating 80% of household waste including plastic and paper waste.

I want to know where the rules and regulations are on the incineration of waste. Why and how are our councils permitted to incinerate 80% of household waste? Upon declaration of the Climate Crisis, our government should have stepped up in a big way. But it seems like they’re committed to a “business as usual approach”.

But “business as usual” is killing the planet.

Plastic Bottles

What Happens When Plastic is Burned

When plastic waste is burned, it produces toxic compounds called dioxins. These can get into our waterways, crops, and accumulate in body fat. According to the WECF (Women in Europe for a Common Future) dioxins are carcinogenic hormone disruptors.

In the War on Plastic [with Hugh and Anita] on BBC One, they interviewed a family who lived in an area where burning plastics is common. A mother showed Hugh a photograph of an extensive nosebleed her daughter had that very morning. Her daughter also revealed she suffered from pain as a result of inhaling the toxic fumes.

What About The Incineration of Waste?

On the surface, I assumed this was the same as just burning plastic waste. But I wasn’t sure, so I did a little digging and discovered Waste to Energy (WTE) incineration. This supposedly turns waste into electricity. An article in the Wall Street Journal estimates that a ton of incinerated waste can produce the same amount of energy (500kWh) as a third of a ton of coal.

“Studies have shown that the entire US WTE industry produces 3 grams of dioxin per year… By comparison, there are over 3,000 landfill fires reported every year, and they produce 1,400 grams of dioxin.”    – Nickolas J. Themelis, Columbia University professor & chairman of Global Waste to Energy Research and Technology Council.

Could WTE incineration be the way forward in tackling our excess waste problem?

Where is Our Waste Going?

Between 2016-2017 the UK exported a grand total of 683,000 tonnes of waste. That dropped to 611,000 tonnes between 2017-2018. So where is it going? The Environment Agency Packaging Database states that the majority of our waste was exported to Malaysia (105,000 tonnes), and Turkey (80,000 tonnes) between 2017-2018.

Other countries receiving exports include Poland (~70,000 tonnes), Indonesia (>60,000 tonnes), and the Netherlands (>60,000 tonnes).

Malaysia noted the largest increase in waste imports (>40,000 tonnes) during 2017-2018 compared with the previous year. Turkey also reported an increase of ~20,000 tonnes during the same time period.

Takeaway Cups

Eco Alternatives to Recycling

Instead of jumping to throw things in the recycling bin, why not try these eco alternatives?

Reuse & repurpose. I’m making a conscious effort to save up old spray bottles and glass jars. Why? So I can repurpose them and extend their lifespan. I also want to have a go at making my own cleaning supplies, and what better to store them in than old cleaning bottles?

Buy better. Expanding your horizons and looking for unpackaged or non-plastic packaged items is a great step in the right direction! I always browse Peace with the Wild, an online eco shop. There isn’t a zero waste shop in my area, so this is the next best thing. They even have a zero waste alternative to washing up liquid!

Make an eco brick. An eco brick is a plastic bottle filled with plastic waste. It’s packed densely to provide a rigid structure that can then be used, you guessed it, as a brick! The Ecobrick Exchange (EBE) is doing amazing work to aid construction in underprivileged communities.

Sources of Information

I don’t usually include this in my blog posts, but I feel it’s important to be transparent when presenting such an information-heavy piece. It’s something I’ll be making an effort to do more often, as I’m by no means an expert on the topic of sustainability.

National Geographic – Here’s How Much Plastic is Littering the Earth by Laura Parker

WECF factsheet – Dangerous Health Effects of Home Burning of Plastics and Waste 

The Environment Agency Packaging Database – Public Reports

Wall Street Journal – Does Burning Garbage for Electricity Make Sense?

While I didn’t use it as a direct source of information, I highly recommend watching BBC One’s War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita. I can give you all the facts and figures in the world, but it helps to have a proper visual.

In the first episode, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall actually visits some of the illegal Malaysian dump sites. It really puts it into perspective when you see the endless sea of plastic waste. It’s airs every Monday on BBC One, but is also available on BBC iPlayer for the next 5 months.

So what now?

I can’t help but feel let down by our government and recycling agencies. We’re led to believe we’re doing the right thing by recycling our waste, but when it ends up in a landfill or illegal dump site anyway, what’s the point?

Recycling is something I’ll continue to do, but I’m also going to be more conscious of what I buy and why. I’m also going to make a big effort to reuse as many containers as possible. I’m definitely going to stop using recycling as an easy ‘throw away’ option. This is something I do already with plastic bags (see the post on reusing plastic bags here).

Contacting my local recycling agency is also something I’ll be looking into. I want to know exactly where my recycling goes, and how much of it is getting exported. After all, why am I putting in all the effort if our councils can’t be bothered to follow through with their promises?

What did you think of The War on Plastic with Hugh & Anita? Are you as shocked as I was about these findings?

14 comments so far.

14 responses to “Recycling; The Reality of Our Waste”

  1. Ailsa Wright says:

    Love this post, I watched the War on Plastic too and was really shocked to find out that we export our waste .. The fact there were Sainsbury’s bags found in a landfill in Malaysia was actually an eye opener.
    So important to repurpose things and not just think cause we can recycle something we can buy loads of it!
    Really interesting and glad someone’s addressed this!

    • It’s crazy isn’t it?! It’s awful that such a situation managed to get by without being noticed for so long. The issue really is with ‘throwaway culture’. While the idea of recycling is brilliant, if it’s not being followed through then there’s not much point! Thanks so much for reading Ailsa, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
      El xx

  2. Ash says:

    I was so shocked and disappointed to find out how little of what we recycle ends up actually being recycled. I think zero waste and composatables is the best way to go!

    • It really is such a shame that they’re effectively able to get away with lying about the rate of recycling and convincing us it’s a viable option when it’s not. I totally agree – hopefully more companies will start to get on board with minimising their packaging!
      El xx

  3. Chloe Osborn says:

    What an eye-opening post, I honestly didn’t know the majority of the facts here, which is crazy. I never even thought about what we put in recycling doesn’t always get recycled, we’ve always been told to recycle and feel good about it but don’t look beyond that! Those are some great ways to reduce waste too, I’m definitely going to look round my home and consider the things that could be replaced by something plastic free.

    • It’s really awful isn’t it? I always thought it was the best option but sadly not! Thank you so much for reading Chloe, let me know via social media if you make any plastic free swaps!
      El xx

  4. Laura says:

    These statistics are so scary! I’ve been trying to reduce plastics since the end of 2017 and am pretty hot on recycling and was astonished (in a bad way) to see where a lot of our plastics end up! It makes me feel a little helpless. I definitely agree that our government and plastic agencies need to step up their game. There’s only so much that the average person can do.

    • Totally agree. We can all be these perfect zero wasters but our efforts can be completely outdone by a big corporation in a matter of minutes. As long as we do what we can, when we can, that’s all that matters. Thank you for reading Laura!
      El xx

  5. Well, this was eye opening! We’ve recycled for years but I had no idea about these statistics. Or about the fact that so much of our waste is exported. WTE sounds like a good option – but you’re right the government really do need to step it up now. Thank you for such an informative post! (I’m going to link it in my July newsletter – hope you don’t mind!) xxx

    • I definitely recommend giving The War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita a look – the things they show you in the show are absolutely appalling! I’d be more than happy for you to link the post in your newsletter, thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed reading.
      El xx

  6. This is a super interesting post. We often think that because something is recyclable it is okay but in reality it’s not getting recycled and it’s just contributing to the problem and not many people know that.

    • I’m so glad you found it interesting Amy! Thanks so much for taking the time to read. It’s so sad that our waste isn’t being recycled as we’re promised but hopefully a better solution will come somewhere down the line.
      El xx

  7. Elisha says:

    We used to recycle everything we could and feel we were doing the right thing too. Our local council actually admitted that for a period the recycling plant was closed so, it was all going to waste. Trying to make more effort to avoid plastics and the kids now have yoghurt containers to hold their craft materials.
    Elisha |

    • It’s such a let down to find out that our efforts could be for nothing! I’m still recycling in the hopes it does some form of good. Ultimately the best option is to avoid altogether! Thanks for sharing Elisha and thank you so much for reading.
      El xx

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I'm Elen Mai, the brains behind Welsh Wanderer and 20-something human biology student from (you guessed it) Wales! Welsh Wanderer is designed with the eco-conscious adventurer in mind. So stick around for tips & tricks on living sustainably.

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