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Is recycling plastics a waste of time?

While I feel strongly connected to nature, I think that plastic is not the enemy.

We typically look to our political leaders for reassurance and guidance on sustainability goals. Creating new R&D projects and providing funding for recycling start-ups and tech providers is more important than ever. But it seems that not all politicians agree – at least not so enthusiastically.

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‘The recycling thing is a red herring,’ so said UK prime minister Boris Johnson at a recent press event in London. Answering children’s questions ahead of the COP26 climate change summit, the PM stated that reusing plastics ‘doesn’t begin to address the problem’. ‘Recycling doesn’t work,’ he argued. ‘You can only recycle plastic a few times.’

He insisted it would be a mistake to rely on recycling to curb ocean waste and that, instead, ‘we’ve all got to cut down our use of plastic.’ Johnson went on to complain about Coca-Cola for contributing heavily to the ocean plastics problem.

This sounds to me like a rather simplistic and overly negative view on the matter. Ocean matter is not the only type of plastic scrap we’re facing and it seems the UK PM doesn’t realise a solution to waste requires a strategic, multi-pronged approach.

This means ensuring product design to more sustainable and recycling-friendly, as well as reducing the use of materials (such as plastic) when not absolutely necessary and, last but certainly not least, boosting recycling infrastructure and best practices to clean up the mess. Putting recycling on the back burner is no way to go.

Luckily, the UK’s Recycling Association has echoed this sentiment. Ceo Simon Ellin has spoken out against Johnson’s black-and-white statement, saying; ‘Wow, the PM has completely lost the plot’. He went on BBC national radio to take a stand for recycling, saying how ‘very disappointed’ he was about Johnson’s words to the hopeful youngsters (aged 8-12).

Ellin further pointed out that his attitude clearly conflicts with that of his government, which has recently invested in a  Resources & Waste Strategy with recycling at the heart of this ground-breaking policy.

Needless to say, Johnson’s statement prompted critical headlines. This led to his official spokesman doubling down on the PM’s words with an interpretation that the PM ‘continues to encourage recycling’ as one of the methods to combat the plastic problem – just not the only one.

He stressed that the government wanted to increase recycling in England as it ‘typically results in lower carbon emissions in comparison to manufacturing products from virgin materials’. Of course, for all of us in the recycling industry this is old news – and rather laughable to have to say it out loud in this day and age.

Following this news story as it blew up, I read comments by people wondering whether Johnson just doesn’t read his briefs before speaking on a topic. Or he just said it wrong – like he usually does. Or perhaps such controversial views are popular right now as a way to grab the attention of the audience with soundbites that are eagerly copy/pasted on social media. Remember the saying: ‘there is no such thing is bad PR’?

I just wish politicians would understand fully the principles on which the waste hierarchy and recycling are founded. To me (and I can’t be the only one), it seems they spend too much time in their office and too little time in the real world. Wouldn’t it be great if they visited recycling plants around the world to see first-hand how far we’ve come? I’d give them extra points for showing up to actually listen and ask questions, rather than just cutting the ribbon and smiling at the camera… 

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