Is recycling really the answer to the plastic problem?

There has been a huge amount of media attention on plastic pollution in recent years. Everyone I speak to is aware of the problem and wants to take action in their own lives.

Excellent. But this often leads to discussions about recycling – how easy or difficult it is to do, what can and can’t be recycled and new recyclable versions of products. But is recycling the answer?

Obviously it is better to recycle than to have plastic polluting our waterways or ending up in landfills. So recycling is definitely ONE of the solutions to the plastic problem.

At the moment,however, most of our plastics are not being recycled. And is this focus on recycling encouraging increased use of plastics? One study found that people  used more cups and gift wrap when there was a recycling bin available .

So, when the recycling conversations start, I have to bite my tongue but I really want to yell the slogan

Reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy gif with words in descending font size

This simple instruction seems to have failed in its message to some extent. It seems that the importance of the order of these words has been overlooked by most people. The slogan has been presented this way for a very particular reason. This hierarchy has been designed to inform us how to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to produce the least amount of waste.

So, the best thing we can all do to reduce plastic waste ( and any other waste ) is to reduce our consumption of goods. Every product we purchase involves some kind of resource, many of which are finite. Plastic for example is made from fossil fuels, supplies of which will not last forever. The amount of plastic in the world has exploded from 1.5 million tons in 1950 to 340 million tons in 2016. Even non plastic goods require some sort of extraction or agriculture or manufacture. At around 60 billion tonnes each year, humans extract and use about 50% more resources than only 30 years ago. It seems clear that the human race has an addiction to new shiny disposable goods, most of which contain plastic of some sort.

As a keen shopper in the past, I realise that for some people shopping is a pastime and the suggestion that this should be curtailed will not be received gladly. Over many years I have gradually reduced my “need” to shop. I still enjoy a bit of retail therapy but I consider each purchase carefully and now focus on products that are sustainable. For example, in the past, if my rucksack started to look a bit tatty, I would have been excited to rush out for a lovely new replacement. Now I am much more likely to stick it in the washing machine, repair any tears and bask in the satisfaction that I had reduced the crazy consumption figures by one!

The next best option to minimise plastic pollution is to reuse. The production of the goods we buy involves resources and energy. If we then go on to throw away the goods after one use then we are wasting a huge amount. The UK population throws away over  295 billion pieces of plastic  every year.  Surely, we can all do a little something to help reduce these figures? Here are some things I do to reuse :

  • If I am going to purchase goods I always check whether there is a way to buy pre used items 
  • Charity shops are an amazing source for second hand goods although you do have to be a bit more patient with this kind of shopping
  • If I happen to receive goods in plastic bags I try to find another use for them, e.g. lining a bin 
  • I keep large envelopes and packaging bags to reuse in my own parcels to friends and customers
  • I keep scraps of material to make drawstring bags and use old towels to make baby wipes
  • I buy nut butter in bulk and reuse the big containers for all sorts of things like plant pots or waste paper bins.

Yes, I know you might be thinking that all this takes a bit more effort. In some cases that is true. But mostly it just needs a slight change of mindset and changing habits. Personally I enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to reduce and reuse. Remember you can start with just one thing. Why not choose one of these ideas and give it a go? You have nothing to lose. And the planet has plenty to gain!

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