Was Boris Johnson Right About Plastic Recycling? 👱♂️ Recycling Podcast
Was Boris Johnson Right About Plastic Recycling? 👱♂️ Recycling Podcast
In this first full episode of our podcast on Recycle: Don’t Be A Waster – we look at the recent comments made by British PM – Boris Johnson – that recycling plastic is not the solution. We discuss if he was right of wrong – and discuss the various concepts. Plastic recycling is great – but we argue that prevention is better than cure.
Podcast transcript – was Boris Johnson right about plastic recycling:
Hello and welcome to another edition of the recycling podcast; Recycle: Don’t Be A Waster. This is probably our first proper episode where we’ll actually cover a topic after last week’s initial pilot episode – just really for us to dip our toes in the pool of recycling and all things waste related. The topic we’re going to cover today is about that very interesting British prime Minister Boris Johnson who tends to make quite outlandish and media attention-seeking statements. Last week at the environmental conference in Scotland he stated that recycling doesn’t work for plastic and that plastic recycling won’t save our oceans and save the Pacific and all that sort of stuff.
This created a lot of attention. A lot of people criticized him and said it was yet another gaffe by Boris Johnson who let’s be honest, tends to make a lot of gaffes, whether intentional or unintentional. I suppose we’re going to look at that question today. I suppose the first thing we need to point out is the context is always important and he actually made the statement to a group of school kids so we should take that into account obviously when when really looking at it. I think it still is a very valid question in the waste industry and Waster where I work is a waste company, waste and recycling business. There are significant issues with recycling plastic. Recycling is a wonderful thing but it works significantly better for some materials than for others let’s be honest. I suppose when you look at it, it’s not a uniform process by any means and every material is different. Some materials are completely suited to recycling, reforming, reusing and reprocessing and others are much less capable in that regard. As an example, I’ll say you look at we can take metal. Most metals can be recycled very effectively. In the extreme example of a gold necklace – gold can be generally bought in most shopping centers – there might be a shop saying we buy gold etc. The recyclability of the product is so easy. Aluminium is very similar and it goes on and on.
Cardboard is a manufactured product that is also extremely easy to recycle and there’s an active market for it but when we we have to be honest with ourselves that when we get to the world of plastic and of course there are many different types of plastic the situation changes greatly.
This is all obviously considering whether the plastic that is produced actually will get recycled or can be recycled. I suppose the first thing we’d have to cover is as we produce plastic, recycling is nice to have but it will not prevent the issues that plastic creates in the environment. Plastic theoretically will last forever in one form or another so every plastic item that’s been created to date, from roughly the middle of the last century or say the 1930s onwards probably still exists in one form or another unless it has been recycled or burned etc.
Plastic and the big issue with it is it’s real plus such as durability, non-toxicity to when wrapping food etc are some of its biggest negatives when it’s disposed of. Lots of it ends up in landfill where it lives forever or in a much worse scenario in our waterways, in the sea, in the oceans – where we have horrific situations such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which basically is the conglomeration via trade winds whereby huge amounts of plastic dumped willy-nilly into the ocean or waterways collects in one place. Was Boris Johnson right about plastic recycling?
This plastic will last, let’s be honest, nobody actually knows how long it will last – but we have to assume between a thousand years and forever. Some of it will break down into what’s called micro plastics or smaller fragments of plastic but that’s not a good thing. It’s probably even worse whereby it gets into our food chain it it is consumed by animals, by fish, by sea life and then it enters the entire food chain of nearly every animal on the planet. There was an articles today about how even in in rooms in the average house people breathe in significant amounts of microplastic and the reality is we actually don’t know what this will do to people or animals or the environment over a long period of time.
The issue with that is the significant issue with plastic, even in a perfect world, whereby perfect recycling was available we would still face significant issues we would still actually need to recycle it. For something to be recycled we need to have A. the ability to recycle i.e the technology needs to exist, B. we need to have a separation system so that we can separate that plastic from other materials C. we need to actually have a collection system whether trucks or whatever it is, some method of collecting that separated plastic and D. we need to have some some facility where we’re implementing that technology and E. we need to have something or somebody that will pay for it whether that’s the government, whether it’s corporations through an extended product responsibility system which we’ll cover in future podcasts.
Was Boris Johnson right about plastic recycling? Check out episode 4 on whether de-industrialisation is the end for recycling.
For all of those five things to happen and for them to happen perfectly it’s almost like we’re dreaming. To a large extent we are wishing and if we look at any one of them, the problems are manifold and they’re quite obvious. So we look at the first one. Does the technology exist? Yes you can recycle many types of plastic but not indefinitely, not over and over again. I think as a rule of thumb we’ll say plastic cannot be recycled more than 10 times and each time you recycle it the polymers ( I’m generalizing here for simplicity) but as you recycle it the polymers in the plastic weaken and you need to add more and more what’s called virgin plastic or new plastic into the mix to strengthen it up to be a viable product. You also will tend to see as the plastic quality weakens it tends to be used for lower and lower quality products. So the first time it’s recycled it could be used for you know a commercial purpose, but after the fifth or sixth time you’re really talking about stuff that’s very low quality – generally is given away and it’s stuff such as flooring in parks for kids if they fall and hurt their knees, insulation for ceilings and you have plastic park benches. These sort of low quality materials that generally are run as a charity or are given away. There isn’t really a commercial market for them and when you get into the scenario for lack of a commercial market you know that’s a significant issue because some somebody has to pay for it and that’s somebody, whether it’s not you or somebody else but the money has to come from somewhere whether through taxation, through fines and penalties on polluters or whatever it is.
We have significant issues in the ability to recycle plastic ,once it gets low-grade cannot be recycled so it’s not a perfect scenario. Look at the other four issues that we discussed. The separation of plastic, let’s be honest it’s not really that possible. You don’t even in residential situations, no matter how ambitious you are as regards recycling and committed there are significant difficulties in separating recycling items. You know a lot of products have multiple streams in the same product like think of a toy or any modern gadget. You could have three different types of plastic. You may have some glass, you may have other other items in it and it just becomes impossible to separate. Even items such as you know Pringles boxes or these sort of things and so a very large percentage of that plastic will fundamentally end up just in general waste and that will go to landfill in nearly all situations.
Once you’ve that’s the separation aspect then you have a collection system somebody has to provide a viable collection process through trucks, you know through the infrastructure to actually do that and again we get into the big serious issue as to who is going to pay for that?
Was Boris Johnson right about plastic recycling?
Is it through increased taxation, is it through again major corporations you know the producers people like Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola etc should they pay through these longer-term product stewardship projects and at the moment that isn’t really happening. The facilities tend not to be for example in NSW and in most other states, Victoria also we pay a landfill levy that is quite significant funds for money going to landfill and that money is supposed to be used to build increased recycling facilities, invest in alternative solutions etc. Let’s be honest, most councils when municipal organizations, when they do tenders for recycling projects or for municipal collections of recycling, price tends to be a big driver in that. We have commingled recycling but it’s by no means a perfect system and commingled recycling in most Australian and other areas tends to be limited to plastic bottles, drinks containers – those sort of items. Soft plastics, single-use plastics items like that tend not to be recycled certainly not through a kerbside collection. I don’t actually have the figures in front of me as to what percentage of plastic is recycled in Australia, but I’m going to guess it’s less than 50 percent of a total number. The other 50 percent – you know the best case scenario is that it ends up in landfill where at least it doesn’t pollute water, wildlife – that sort of aspect.
I suppose we get to the point of what Boris Johnson’s saying and it’s you know, the old medical situation of prevention is better than cure. Even if recycling was perfect – which it is not it would be a cure but prevention is significantly better. You know we use as a society huge amounts of single-use plastics in aspects that are just completely valueless in many regards and useless. Some items of course are useful. Even a drinking straw provides utility to the person drinking it and I’ve read many studies that people who have physical difficulties and physical disabilities – they value plastic drinking straws and items like that and of course there’s a need for that. I would say however that many of these single-use items, single-use plastic – you know spoons, when you go to a sushi shop – the little piece of plastic grass inside inside the sushi container. Some of them are completely ridiculous and provide no utility but also provide no sustainability or longer term thinking as to who will get rid of that stuff how can it be recycled, who can pay for it etc and it’s very difficult for companies or anybody to process that material and to get rid of it so in many regards.
Boris Johnson is correct in an ideal world we would reduce the usage of plastic – obviously this is for a future podcast but we would be looking at something such as alternatives to plastic. We’d look at plastic replacements such as sugar cane or items like that that can be broken down and obviously that’s a much longer discussion which we’ll cover on a future podcast.
I think it’s worth saying today, a lot of people jump at mocking Boris Johnson who I think almost welcomes that. He’s with his blonde hair and his affable poshness and these sort of things which is his major selling point to the British populace. I think he has a point and his point is we’ve gone down a long road of pretending that recycling will save the world. Let’s be honest, it’s vital, it’s very important but it is not a 100% solution to the issues that plastic presents.
I will be interested to hear any listeners viewpoints on this topic so reach out to us, comment below on whatever system you’re listening or email us of course at waster.com.au and we’ll be more than happy to continue the conversation. Do you think Boris Johnson was right about plastic recycling?
Okay, so have a great day and Recycle don’t be a Waster