The big fat recycling lie

Where does all your recycling go?

We are led to believe that all the plastics we carefully sort out and dispose of separately is taken to hi-tech recycling plants and turned back into reusable material.

But it turns out that is a big fat lie.

On Friday, news emerged that “The plastics recycling industry is facing an investigation into suspected widespread abuse and fraud within the export system amid warnings the world is about to close the door on UK packaging waste,” according to The Guardian.

As I said back in July, I find it strange that so many people put so much faith in a system they know virtually nothing about.

You separate out your recycling, the bin men take it away and then you never hear anything about it again.

We’re told it’s all repurposed and recycled.

But that’s simply not the case. Much of this “recycling” is ending up in landfills, burnt or dumped into the sea.

I find it amazing that so many people simply take the recycling narrative on faith.

We need to demand better.

Opaque systems lead to corruption

The problem is, as the recycling system is so opaque, it makes it easy to take advantage of.

And take advantage people have.

As the Guardian says, allegations that the agency is understood to be investigating include:

  • Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist
  • UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans
  • Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands
  • UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.

The reason all this is happening is because there is no accountability. Companies are simply required to make self-declarations about how much packaging they are exporting.

And it turns out these companies have been lying. HM Customs has recorded 35,135 tonnes less plastic leaving the country than these companies claim.

These companies get paid by how many tonnes of plastic they ship. So, if they lie about it, they get more money for less work.

There is no demand on them to prove they are shipping the amounts they claim to be. It’s all self-reported. So, of course organised crime is going to move in and start making money from this system. It’s such a simple scam.

And up until now, it was also a very safe one. After all, who is going to question the morals of a recycling company? They’re the good guys! They’re saving the planet for us. We should be grateful.

And much of the recycling that does make it abroad isn’t even recycled anyway

Britain is finding it increasingly hard to get countries to accept our recycling waste.

Again, from The Guardian:

In January, China stopped accepting British plastic waste and exports shifted to Malaysia, Vietnam and Poland. But Malaysia and Vietnam have imposed temporary bans on imports and Poland is considering restrictions, a sign that countries are growing more wary amid evidence of high contamination rates.

Figures seen by the Guardian show UK exports to Turkey and the Netherlands soaring as a result. Several insiders told the Guardian the export market – which the UK relies on as it struggles to meet a target to reprocess more than half its plastic waste by 2020 – could dry up within weeks.

This month Turkey is set to overtake Poland as the second biggest receiver of the UK’s plastic waste.

According to the Guardian, the Environment Agency has conducted no checks as to what Turkey is doing with this waste.

Of course Turkey claims it is recycling it, but given that Turkey recycles only 1% of its own waste, that seems highly unlikely.

Adding to this, the Journal of Science lists Turkey among the worst countries in the world for mismanaging plastic waste.

But, hey, as long as we’re separating out our rubbish on our end, who cares what happened to it down the line, right? We’re doing our bit.

What is to be done?

Well, let’s look at the issues:

  • Companies are dumping waste they claim to be recycling
  • Companies are lying about the weight and content of their shipments
  • Waste is being shipped illegally to places it shouldn’t
  • Countries are not proving they are actually recycling their recycling.

The best solution to this would be a better, more transparent system to track where this waste has come from, where it’s going it, and what is being done with it when it gets there.

Basically, waste management is crying out for a blockchain solution for auditing and transparency.

This would solve the problems of fraud, corruption and transparency. It would make it easy to track exactly what shipments contain, where they came from and where they ended up.

I’ve had a good look, and right now I can’t see any blockchain projects aiming to take on this problem. But surely as pressure mounts on the corruption in the recycling industry, someone will.

On a happier note, plastic “islands” in the ocean could soon become a thing of the past

Another huge plastic problem is the amount of it that ends up floating in the ocean.

This plastic tends to accumulate in five specific regions. The biggest of which is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This is an area of floating plastic rubbish that measures 1.6 million square kilometres. It contains 1.6 trillion pieces of plastic – that’s 250 pieces for every person on the planet – weighing a total of 80,000 tonnes.

The Ocean Cleanup has created a new device, which can autonomously clear up this massive pollution problem.

In its own words:

The system consists of a 600-meter-long floater that sits at the surface of the water and a tapered 3-meter-deep skirt attached below. The floater provides buoyancy to the system and prevents plastic from flowing over it, while the skirt stops debris from escaping underneath.

This is the first of 60 it is planning to make. When all 60 are in operation, the Ocean Cleanup calculates it can clean half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every five years.

It’s an amazing idea, and it’s already in production. You can watch a short video on how it works on the Ocean Cleanup’s site, if you’re interested.

Until next time,

Harry Hamburg
Editor, Exponential Investor

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