Where does all the recycling go?

As a nation we are getting better at recycling, but how do you feel about your waste going half way around the world to China or Hong Kong after you have done your bit? Do you consider this an environmental paradox or simply better than it ending up in landfill here in the UK? Ethical Superstore tracks the seemingly crazy global movement of our trash.

First, we pop out our rubbish for recycling. Over a third of UK waste is now recycled and when you consider it was a shockingly low 14 per cent two years ago, this is a big leap for a previously apathetic nation.

Then, it gets sorted. After collection it is taken to what is known as a Materials Recycling Facility and sorted either by hand or machine before being taken to manufactures who make it into shiny new products.

Most of our recycling stays within the UK. 82% of our glass waste currently stays here – the majority of it to make new glass bottles and jars – and 75% of aluminium is reprocessed here. 100% of our wood and all of our green waste, unsurprisingly perhaps, stays here too*.

But, some of it gets exported. Paper and plastic currently have the biggest demand for overseas export. Only 51 per cent of paper and 36 per cent of plastic was reprocessed in the UK in 2006*.

Why do we send it overseas? Waste paper and plastic currently fetch the highest prices in Asian countries where virgin materials are scarce, labour is cheap and the manufacturing industry is great. Over 90 per cent of our plastic waste going overseas ends up in Asia – in 2007 we exported over 100 million kilos of plastic to China, and over 300 million kilos to Hong Kong**. Paper is in high demand too. China took nearly two and a half billion kilos in 2007 – over half of our exported waste paper – while India and Indonesia took over 300 million kilos of paper each**.

Does this make sense? Although it seems a vast recycling loop, it is suggested that reprocessing overseas is better than exploiting raw materials (forests for paper and oil for plastic). It also minimises the use of energy during the manufacturing process and prevents waste ending up in landfill here. But, some UK companies do make products from UK waste. Many innovative recycling ideas are coming from the UK. Using only UK waste, a remarkable company – called Remarkable – is making a range of stationery from recycled vending cups – millions of which are disposed of each day, showing that the recycling loop can be smaller.

What about the future? For plastics, UK collection and reprocessing is growing fast. Over half UK households now able to recycle plastic on their doorstep and major reprocessing plants are currently being built in the UK. There is a demand growing from the textile, building and automotive industries to use recycled plastics, while major brands, such as Boots and M&S are looking to use recycled plastics for their new products – this is perhaps the greatest driving force for change.

What are your thoughts on the global trade of waste? It is a solution? Should we aim to reprocess it all here? Share your thoughts below.

* Source: DEFRA.
** Source: HM Revenue & Customs.

Thanks to D’Arcy Norman for the photo. Here is the original.

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