Recycling is one of the topics of the moment right now, particularly as a result of the Chinese decision no longer to take shipments of partially sorted waste from the UK for processing. I have to confess to the ignoble thought - held for some time - that I have my doubts about the amount of processing of those shipments that went on, versus the amount of product that simply found its way into oceans or landfill all those thousands of miles away, but maybe I am being too cynical. Perhaps there really are gangs of labourers picking over mountains of refuse, just like those in the nineteenth century London of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. Who knows?
Anyway, maybe the absence of ships’ holds into which to dump the unwanted detritus of our society will focus minds on the issue, to which in many ways only lip service has so far generally been paid. Leaving aside metals for the moment, where the issue is taken seriously, there would seem to be two items to look at. First, there is the question of what materials are used for packaging, and secondly - although obviously closely related - is the cost involved in recycling.
In recent times, the UK government has been jumping up and down and talking about future bans on single-use plastic, which is one of the most pernicious pollutants in general usage. Well, jolly good; but why always in the future, when there are what I can only describe as crass stupidities clearly visible? Supermarkets sell meat in black plastic trays, with a clear film; they know full well that the refuse sorting machinery cannot identify black plastic, and therefore, despite the fact that it is a recyclable material, it is not sorted for recycling but is despatched to landfill. The logic behind this - apparently - is that consumers prefer to see their meat against a black background, so that’s what they use, regardless. Now, I’m a great believer in technology improving the world (and consumer choice), and I’m sure at some point the sorting machines will be developed to the point where they can pick out black, but in the interim, somebody - and it’s either the supermarkets or the consumers - is behaving frankly stupidly. Like most people who are not veggies or vegans, I buy meat, sometimes from a butcher, sometimes from a supermarket; I would be surprised to find I was atypical in not insisting on black trays, once I was aware of the implications. This could be changed now, not at some indeterminate date in the future. And I’m not pining for my 1960s schooldays when I point out that milk used to come in glass bottles, which were then recycled in the simplest possible way by being taken back, cleaned and refilled. Now, it comes in plastic, part of which s recyclable and part - the top - often, not so much. Why? I have no idea, except that at some point it looked easier that way. Now, with plastic clogging parts of the oceans, perhaps that doesn’t look such a smart idea.
There is a cost issue here. The metals industry has a pretty good record in recycling. It’s not too difficult to see why; metals are - in relative terms - high value, and although the cost of recycling equipment may be substantial, the business works because there is sufficient value to be found in the secondary material. But the same model doesn’t actually work for plastics, sadly. So what to do? Well, the first - frankly, quite simple - answer is surely just to use less. After all, are we all so incapable of handling foodstuffs and other goods that they have to be wrapped in plastic before we can pick them off a shelf? Do we need those 5p plastic bags the shops provide? After all, paper is far easier to deal with, so why not revert to paper bags? Secondly, and unfortunately for the consumer, pricing has to be adjusted to reflect the cost of cleaning up all this stuff, and to stop it from ever reaching the oceans, or the landfill sites, in the first place.
Out of sight, out of mind will no longer do for this stuff; China has made us think a bit. Let’s not fall into the trap of saying, ‘ah well, there’s always India or Malaysia or Indonesia, so let’s keep putting it on those ships’. The world doesn’t have to drown in waste, but it will take money and effort to stop it; fortunately, despite squeals to the contrary, the west has both of those commodities at hand. We just have to accept that there is a cost we must pay.