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Why recycling is not the answer for fighting the plastic pollution problem

Why recycling is not the answer for fighting the plastic pollution problem
By Chris Harris
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If you want to fight plastic pollution in the oceans it's better to reduce consumption rather than recycle, experts say.


Britain has today revealed plans to tackle plastic pollution calling it one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.

The government is consulting on a possible ban of single-use items like plastic straws and cotton buds.

But what is the best way of cutting plastic pollution? We spoke to an expert at the European Environmental Bureau to find out.

How much of a problem is it?

Marine-based plastic pollution is already one of the world’s major environmental problems and campaigners say it is expanding at a catastrophic rate.

Although it is difficult to measure, there is estimated to be around 150 million metric tonnes of plastic in our oceans.

We add a further eight million tonnes per annum.

This, say campaigners, is the equivalent of tipping a refuse truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute of each day for a year.

If we carry on at the current pace there will be more plastic than fish — in terms of weight — by 2050, according to a report by the World Economic Forum.

Why is it a problem?

It’s a problem because sealife and birds have been swallowing the plastic, which has subsequently killed them.

The Ocean Conservancy says plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and 100 per cent of sea turtle species.

Earlier this month it emerged a sperm whale found dead on a Spanish beach had 29 kilograms of plastic in its stomach.

Experts said it had died because it was unable to expel the plastic from its body.

Toxins from chemicals used to adapt the plastics are also leaking into the environment, poisoning groundwater and the food chain.

Where is all the plastic coming from?

Plastic has proved to be a low-cost and versatile material that make it ideal for use in many applications.

But it has spawned a disposable lifestyle with around 50% of plastic used just once and then thrown away, according to Plastic Oceans.


It says we’re producing 300 million tonnes of plastic a year and the output over the last decade has been greater than the previous century.

How does plastic end up in our oceans?

Greenpeace New Zealand says litter is one of the key reasons there is so much plastic in our seas, either via people not cleaning up after themselves or because countries do not have adequate waste management facilities.

Some of it is also washed down the drain. Personal care and cosmetic products — from face scrubs to shower gels — contain tiny pieces of plastics known as microbeads. These stay in the water and eventually find their way into our oceans.

A study found that 10 rivers —The Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger and the Mekong — were responsible for transporting up to 95% of plastics found in our oceans.


What are the worst items?

The main items that litter beaches like plastic bottles, straws and hygiene products, said Carsten Wachholz, senior policy officer for the circular economy at EEB.

Credit: International Coastal Cleanup
These are the most popular items found during a global beach clean-up.Credit: International Coastal Cleanup

Is more recycling the answer?

Not really, according to Wachholz.

He claimed that while recycling is better than just throwing plastic away there are better ways to deal with the problem.

Reducing the amount and types of different plastic we use would be better, he added.


“We cannot recycle our way out of the plastic pollution wave because we are using too much plastic in the first place,” he said.

What’s the problem with recycling?

Wachholz said most recycling doesn’t separate different plastics from each other, which makes the process less efficient.

For example if you recycle a plastic water bottle it will get mixed in with other plastics, making it highly unlikely it will emerge the other end as the same item.

He added: “We need to simplify the variety of plastics that are available on the market otherwise recycling will always end up in some low quality plastic stuff that can be used for park benches but little else.”


Wachholz said if consumption was reduced that would make it economically viable to look at establishing more effective collection-sorting-recycling processes that focus on individual plastics rather than grouping them all together.

It would mean water bottles being recycled back as water bottles, something that would have a far bigger impact on the amount of plastic the world produces.

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