If you put your plastic in your recycling bin, there’s a decent chance it will end up in the seas off east Asia. If you put it in landfill, it’s going nowhere
Plastic in a river in Manila, the Philippines, where a significant amount of Western ‘recycling’ plastic is sent (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP/Getty)
Recycling plastic is a bad idea and, until we can be sure of where it’s going, we should stop doing it. We should put plastic in the landfill, instead.
This sounds like a really spicy hot take, but it’s not. I think it is pretty much accepted among people who study these things. The oceans are full of plastic, and that’s bad – but none of the plastic in the oceans comes from a British landfill. It almost all comes from developing-world countries, and by recycling we make the problem worse.
About in the UK is “mismanaged” – that is, dropped as litter or dumped into the environment, or left in open landfill. By contrast, in India, that figure is over 20 per cent – 400 times higher. China is comparable, at about 19 per cent.
In the Philippines, that , still more than 100 times the UK level but not quite as dramatic. But the Philippines is a collection of small islands, so plastic litter and ends up in the sea. Malaysia, similarly, has with mismanaged waste, but large percentages of what is mismanaged . So the average bit of plastic in one of those countries is .
Until 2018 a large fraction of the Western world’s “recycled” plastic was shipped to China, until China decided to stop taking it. Then rich countries started sending it to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. But of plastic waste in those countries is mismanaged. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that so much of their own waste ends up in the rivers, but they nonetheless carefully recycle the waste sent to them by the West.
Now, several of those countries have severely limited the amount of plastic they import. So other countries – often countries with limited ability to recycle their own plastics – have stepped in. The Guardian that much of the US’s waste now goes to Bangladesh, Laos, Ethiopia and Senegal.
One this year estimated that of the 37,000 tons of plastic food packaging exported annually by the Netherlands, 6,000 tons end up in the sea.
Not all recycling is like this. Some plastic is recycled in the countries that dispose of it – there are advanced plastic recycling facilities in the UK. But much of it ends up going overseas.
Meanwhile, if you throw some plastic in your non-recycling bin in the UK, it goes in your wheelie bin, gets picked up by a bin lorry and is taken to landfill. Modern landfills are pretty good – they have at the bottom, so liquids can’t leach out of them into groundwater. They’re divided into subcompartments called cells, and as each cell is filled it is sealed over with a thick clay cap so the contents can’t escape. The contents decay and give off methane, but that methane is either burnt off or captured for use in energy. And nothing in that landfill is going to end up in the ocean.
There’s also not a major shortage of space to put new landfills in. Once you’ve filled your landfill you can cover it up and farm on it, or build a golf course or whatever.
We can and should also try to reduce how much plastic we use – although only within limits. Lots of the plastic we use is really helpful – plastic food wrapping, for instance, reduces food waste; disposable plastic bags are , certainly compared to heavy-duty canvas bags for life. You’d need to use an organic cotton bag 150 times in order for it to be energy-efficient compared to using a supermarket plastic bag once. Cheap plastic bags are probably net good for the climate – they’re just bad if they end up in the sea, which, if put into UK landfill, they won’t.
In the future, AI and bioengineering technologies – which can sort recycling efficiently and break down plastics into reusable chemicals, respectively – will probably make plastic recycling efficient and effective. When we reach that point, we should make sure we do it. We could even retrieve old plastic from landfill, if that’s cost-effective; it’s not as if it’s going anywhere.
And recycling metal is just a good idea and we should definitely continue to do it.
But at the moment, as it stands, too much of what we put into “recycling” ends up in the seas around east Asia. That’s not good. Landfill is better than you think.