Plastics Recycling: It's Child's Play - Or Is It?

Posted on Posted on 29 Sep 2020

View our video on myth-busting plastics recycling with UKCPN Programme Lead, Sally Beken, in conversation with Anne Hitch (Citizen & Stakeholder Engagement Manager for RECOUP), accompanied by Anne's blog on RECOUP's  activities.


This week would have seen RECOUP’s annual Conference and 30th Anniversary Dinner, so it seems like a good point to reflect on what we have achieved. RECOUP was set up as a 3-year project in 1990 to kick-start PET bottle recycling in the UK. Thirty years later, all UK Local authorities collect bottles kerbside. Whilst we believe that everyone is aware, they can recycle plastic bottles, the question is why don’t they?  The UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2019 reported a recycling rate of 59% for bottles and 31% for pots, tubs and trays, indicating that somehow the recycling message is not quite getting through.


RECOUP’s Pledge2 Recycle Plastics “Cutting the Confusion” campaigns were developed in response to consumers difficulties in understanding in how to deal with plastics packaging. The Insight work conducted supports the fact that citizens want to do the right thing but find the decision making process complicated. And yet when the Pledge team are visiting schools and talking to children they generally get it right – for them it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3. Is this because they see the packaging in its simplest form and do not question the different shapes, colour variants, or worry about what was previously in the pack such as raw meat or cleaning products; maybe because they have not been influenced by the media?


As adults, we look into and question the detail, what to do with removable sleeves, absorbent layers, film lids, tops, and trigger sprays, as well as what to do if the packaging is black. All this pre-sorting information needs to be relayed in a way that will reduce contamination and improve recycling rates, while at the same time, it is crucial that recyclability by design is a core principle. RECOUP work across the value chain to drive recyclability through plastics pack guidelines including a raft of sector specific case studies. The studies cover specific areas such as DIY, On-the-Go, Gardening and Health and Beauty products, giving examples of products where kerbside collection is possible, as well as that are unable to be processed due to collection, sorting or NIR detection challenges. While different sectors bring their own unique set of packaging, there are always challenges to recyclability common to all, such as small items, pack label coverage, full sleeves, multi-polymers, and laminates. Pack design can do much to improve kerbside recyclability while, at the same time, reducing consumer confusion. It makes sense that the less someone has to do with a pack to place it for recycling the greater the probability it will be recycled, making it so simple it is indeed child’s play.    As one citizen put it to me, “if it’s that important, make it big and bold ‘recycle me’.”


The carbon footprint of 1kg of recycled PET bottles is 1.7kg CO2e when recycled and kept in the loop, as opposed to 4.2kg CO2e for the same weight of PET bottles made from virgin plastic – so, why wouldn’t you recycle? And why, as a nation, are we not better at it? The media challenge continues to be targeted on the material itself and not consumer behaviour.  The link between plastics litter and pollution and the waste of resources seems obvious to us and yet, we know that this link is not normally made; in the words of the latest Pledge2Recycle Plastics social media campaign we need to #stopitdontdropit and #dontthrowonthego.  


RECOUP continue to bring their knowledge and experience to bear across a wide range of sectors and work is ongoing investigating areas such as farming and horticulture plastics, toys, films and flexibles, and health and beauty.  


I look forward to the day when everyone, reduces, reuses and then recycles what they can when they can; when there are also no complicated do’s and don’ts; and when the decision on what to do with plastic packaging is, as Sergei would say, “simples”. 


Anne Hitch (Citizen & Stakeholder Engagement Manager for RECOUP).

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