Where do your plastic bottles go after you put them in your recycling box?


As we celebrate Plastic Free July, it’s time to think consciously about the way that we consume plastic products. There are some quick wins when it comes to swapping out plastic products for non-plastic ones but far too many items, from toys to groceries to beauty products, still come in plastic packaging.

There’s even plastic in most of the fabrics used to make clothes these days, with laundry now serving as the largest source of microplastic pollution. According to the 2017 study, Primary Microplastics in the Oceans: A Global Evaluation of Sources, 34.8% of global microplastic pollution is caused by textiles with synthetic materials such as polyester and acrylic releasing microfibres with every wash.

Tackling plastic pollution

There two main ways that we can tackle plastic pollution. The first is to reduce the amount of plastic that we consume. Making conscious decisions to buy non-plastic items wherever possible is a start. Cotton clothing, bamboo toothbrushes and cotton buds, loose fruit and vegetables that you put into your own (cotton) bags… all of this adds up.

The second is to ensure that we recycle as much of the plastic that we use as possible. But what precisely does that entail? Let’s find out.

What happens to the plastic that we recycle?

When you drop a plastic bottle into your recycling bin (suitably rinsed and crushed, of course), how much further thought do you give it? Probably not a great deal! According to All Things Hair, 76.4% of us actively recycle our plastic waste. But what happens to it after it is collected and taken away?

The first step is sorting. This may happen at kerbside or at a dedicated materials recovery facility, depending on where you live. The items that you have put into your recycling bins are sorted either by hand or by machine (and in some instances by both) in order to separate out the different materials.

Once sorted, the materials are ready to be sent to manufacturers who use them to make new products. Where they are sent to depends on the product in question. Organic (kitchen) waste, for example, is usually processed locally and turned into compost, fertiliser or biogas. Plastic, on the other hand, often has a longer journey ahead of it.

Why is so much plastic recycling sent overseas?

Just 45% of the plastic that is put into recycling bins in the UK is recycled domestically. This means that the plastic bottle you so virtuously drop into your recycling bin has a greater chance of heading overseas than it does of staying in the country. According to Recycle Now, this is because countries that lack the virgin materials to make plastic are prepared to pay high prices to import plastic that they can recycle. Plastic is made from a range of natural materials, including cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and crude oil. It can be more cost effective to import existing plastic that needs recycling than to import these virgin items.

While this may not seem ideal in terms of the average plastic bottle’s carbon footprint, it is better in environmental terms than further depleting natural resources in order to manufacture plastic. Although, as stated above, cutting out the use of plastic altogether is by far the best option.

Which countries produce the most plastic waste?

When it comes to global guilt, it is the US and the UK that need to hang their heads in shame. Their residents produce more plastic waster per person than those of any other country. The average American produces 105kg of plastic waste every year. In the UK, the figure stands at 99kg per year. They are followed by South Korea and Germany.

Interestingly, China produces just 15kg of plastic waste per person per year. This is despite it being the largest producer of plastic for the global market.

Is all plastic recycling actually recycled?

You might be forgiven for thinking that, when you put plastic items into your recycling box, they end up being recycled. However, this is not always the case. In China, waste from the UK is sorted through and the useful bits used in manufacturing. The rest is often burned, at great expense to the environment. The same is true for recycling sent to Malaysia, where it often ends up in illegal dumps, or again being burned.

Countries are not oblivious to the environmental and public health damage that this is causing. In 2018, China cracked down on the types of waste it would accept from overseas. In 2019, Malaysia began turning away shipments of foreign waste. Indian and Thailand, meanwhile, have both banned the import of plastic waste from overseas.

Of course, all of this overseas involvement starts with plastic being put into recycling bins in the first place but that’s not the case. Some 26% of the plastic consumed in the UK ends up in landfill instead.

What is recycled plastic turned into?

A huge range of products can be made using recycled plastic. Bin bags, packaging materials, building materials, furniture, cosmetics bottles, car parts, paint pots and more can all be made with recycled plastic.

Unfortunately, plastic can usually only be recycled once or twice, unlike glass and aluminium, which can be recycled almost indefinitely without any loss of quality.

Scientists and engineers around the world are working to find innovative solutions to dealing with recycling plastic waste. The rate at which we are consuming plastic is increasing rapidly. As such, the need to find a solution to our global plastic problem is becoming more and more pressing.