Reuse is the key to tackling plastic waste

“Moving forward, processing the scrap is a layer of complexity that can be removed completely from the loop if we reuse and localise.” Janet Storey, crew member of anti-plastics campaign group Plastics Rebellion details why reuse must be put at the top of the priority list for government and industry.

Janet Storey

I joined a friend on a beach clean last summer – he regularly pulls up kilos of plastic from the chalk coastline by Beachy Head in East Sussex. As we piled it up, we were congratulated by people who were all horrified by the amount of plastic in the sea.

A woman came up to us with her son and said: “That’s brilliant – my son’s an eco-warrior too, he collects the recycling”, and my heart sank: nowadays, the very word ‘recycling’ makes my blood pressure go up. In the online etymology dictionary the entry reads "to reuse material," 1922, originally of industrial processes”. And this is the crux of the plastics nightmare: in order to stop it killing us all, should we be reusing, reducing or recycling?

Even Science Daily fails to spot that reuse is really the simplest solution: “Recycling offers perhaps the simplest solution. The emissions reductions from eliminating the need for new plastic outweigh the slightly higher emissions that come from processing the scrap.” 

Plastics Rebellion argues that moving forward, processing the scrap is a layer of complexity that can be removed completely from the loop if we reuse and localise. We have made an infographic to explain this – and we acknowledge that there may need to be an initial manufacturing frenzy to start this reuse model off. Consumers would need to be informed as to why their packaging was a bit duller, with only labels to differentiate. And sure, it would be tricky to sort out. But can we afford not to?

An infographic by Plastics Rebellion

So, ‘recycling’ is a relatively new idea. In the case of plastic, we understand it to mean cleaning, shredding, processing and melting or repelleting to form a material to make another bottle from (which rarely happens) or more likely a fleece (downcycling).

In her book Ancient Futures, Helena Norbert Hodge describes how society in Ladakh, until the very recent development along the lines of western consumerism, thrived with traditions of frugality and zero waste.

‘Reuse’ was the watchword. Clothing made from plants and wool was repaired and finally used to line ditches. Food waste – what little there was – was composted or fed to animals in small scale farms. Even my own mum, now 84, remembers a virtually zero-waste life in suburban Twickenham during the war, with jugs taken to pubs for beer, meat wrapped in newspaper, milk bottles washed and refilled and no lunch on the go. Snacks didn’t exist unless you made them at home. 

In the trinity ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ that gets trotted out by government and industry (these words are almost interchangeable as the lobbying of plastics manufacturers is so powerful), it’s always ‘recycle’ that wins out. The other two get kicked out of the spotlight.

We at Plastics Rebellion are at pains to point out that we can’t recycle our way out of the plastics nightmare. When we say, “recycling is dead”, it’s not that we’re ‘anti-recycling’. Sure, if we can turn some of the junk out there in the environment into something useful as a stay of execution before the end of its life, that’s fine. 

It’s just that as a strategy to save us from extinction, it’s not going to cut it. Right now, we all know the UK Government is shipping waste to Turkey, Philippines and Indonesia where it’s being burnt on quays and roadsides and poisoning local people. Uganda is choking on plastics in rivers and lakes and the same story is being played out all over Africa. Only nine per cent of all plastic ever made has been recycled. There isn’t the infrastructure to recycle the vast scale of plastic being produced, and production is set to triple by 2050.

Yet still, we are being told that it’s OK, that it will all be recycled. We must wake up to the reality of the world literally drowning in the stuff. Why are oil companies continuing to drill for new oil and gas when it’s theoretically accepted it must stay in the ground?

Because they know it’s for plastic production, predicted to be responsible for 20 per cent by 2050 (World Economic Forum, 2016).This can be the only explanation for the UK’s Cambo and the other projects proliferating around the world. 

Industry is pinning its hopes on rPET and chemical recycling. Even rPET isn’t infinitely recyclable, so it’s not as circular as it appears (despite Joe Lycett’s recent campaign against coloured PET that inadvertently green-lighted the entire output of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Co). Chemical recycling is untried at scale, and if your gut is telling you that it’s a toxic timebomb, believe it! 

Government and industry have no incentive to stop making plastic. Incineration and energy from waste is emission-heavy and relies on plastics for feedstock to burn at the high temperatures required, yet there are plans for over 50 incinerators in the UK right now. Also, Essar Oil and INEOS are planning to make hydrogen ‘sustainable’ air fuel (SAF) by burning plastics. The implications of emissions from the manufacturing of the fuel will no doubt be cleverly offset, but the ecological implications aren’t being talked about. 

Our final problem with recycling as a solution for plastics moving into the future is that it’s literally a waste of time and energy. We can find true circularity by following Helena Norbert Hodge’s model of localisation and by refilling and going zero waste as far as possible.

Dare we say it, we could also lose 90 per cent of the snacks, cakes and drinks packaged in plastic with the only ill effects being felt by the huge conglomerates pumping out this diabetes-inducing stuff.

As my mum said: “If you have a cup of tea, why spend time cleaning your cup, grinding it down into dust, forming it back into clay and remaking it, when you could just do the washing up?”