At Bower Collective, our vision is to drive towards a world without plastic waste in which everyone enjoys a more sustainable life.
We have written this special report to highlight the problems inherent within the recycling industry and address some of the myths and misconceptions around the facts, that ultimately lead to negative environmental consequences.
Government statistics state that 46% of UK household plastic waste is recycled. Sadly, the real number is less than 10%. Most of the waste is still being exported, sent to landfill or incinerated.
Key reference: Greenpeace “Trashed” Report, April 2021.
One of the key factors that drove us to launch Bower Collective was the fact that at a global level, recycling of plastic waste is broken. This means that regardless of how diligent we are at sorting our domestic plastic kerbside waste, very little of it is genuinely recycled, regardless of what is on the packaging. It is also a postcode lottery dependent on the capability or your local authority, as at an individual local authority level, ‘household waste’ recycling rates ranged from 18.8% to 64.1%.
That is why we have made the reuse of packaging materials central to our business. Our closed loop model ensures that zero plastic packaging waste is generated by our products, and indeed that we will be reusing our packaging multiple times (when we launch our new packaging technology later this year), resulting in significant carbon savings of up to 90% compared to a linear single use plastic packaging container.
We get asked by customers a lot why we have a reuse and refill system when other brands still ship single use plastic bottles that are all recyclable. So we decided to produce this report to answer those questions and provide some insight as to what is really happening in the UK today.
Recycling - let’s break it down
Recycling is the process of converting waste into usable material. With the UK producing approximately 26 million tonnes (MT) of waste every year, 14 million tonnes are sent to landfill, and 12 million tonnes are “recycled”, leading to a recycling rate of 45%. The UK government has a target of 50% of all waste being recycled by 2025, so we are currently on track.
Or are we? No, we are not. Not even close.
At Bower we investigated recycling in the UK with the aim of finding out how much plastic is successfully recycled into new materials. The major issue we found is that reliable statistics do not exist. The current government statistics on recycling in the UK for the following materials are as follows:
Aluminium = Recycling rate of 52%
Steel = Recycling rate of 77.3%
Paper Packaging = Recycling rate of 79%
Glass = Recycling rates of 67.6%
Plastic = Recycling rates of 46.2%
A recent campaign by Greenpeace has suggested that the true plastic packaging actually recycled in the uK is less than 10%, far off the 46% that is currently being touted by the Government8. The problem with these statistics is that while 46.2% of plastic packaging is “recycled”2, this is a measure of how much was collected and not actually recycled into new and usable items. The issues with recycling that were present 20 years ago are still very much here today. Between 2020 and 2030 the estimation is that plastic recycling tonnage will hit 660,000 tonnes (this excludes plastic waste export, see below for more detail). However, in this same time frame it is also estimated that 750,000 tonnes of plastic will be placed in landfill5. Is this progress?
The UK government has recycling targets for every local authority in the country, however there are currently no quality ways to measure actual recycling rates and there are also no penalties for failing to meet them. Furthermore, it has been found that the areas of the country that have the lowest recycling rates are often tied into Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts. These are often more expensive for the government in the long-term and are highly inflexible1. This is exemplified by Norfolk Council who had to pay £33.7 million to get out of a PFI contract for an incinerator that was never built3. It is no wonder that there are varying levels of ability to recycle across the country when funds are being wasted due to poor governmental distribution and decision-making.
A key factor into why recycling rates are not as the government states is because of “waste-to-energy” incinerators. The number of waste incinerators in the UK is 48 and will be rising to 66 in the next few years. It is currently estimated that 60% of the waste that is being incinerated in the UK can be recycled4. If waste is not recycled, it is seen as better to create cleaner electricity than place the waste in landfill. However, as the government has invested millions into these incinerators, this has created more capacity and demand for material that comes into power systems to create electricity. This encourages more waste, and more recycling, to go to incinerators than to be recycled into other items. These facilities do not pay a carbon tax and are using carbon accounting to alter how ‘green’ they appear.
A second key factor into why recycling rates are not as they appear is due to the exportation of products that should or could have been recycled. In 2018, approximately 650,000 tonnes of plastic were exported, leading to a more realistic adjusted recycling rate for plastic in the UK to be 35%6. Between January and June 2019, the UK exported 12,000 tonnes per month just to Turkey, accounting for over 25% of total recovered plastic exports from the UK7. The other countries that the UK exported plastics to were Belgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Poland, Malaysia, Spain and Indonesia.
With recycling rates in the UK far below the statistics stated, and with either landfill or incineration (that gives out more carbon emissions than gas) the likely endpoint for waste, here at Bower we don’t believe the system is viable. For glass and aluminium yes - to an extent - although they do consume a lot of energy in the recycling process.
So what is Bower doing about it?
As we explained in our 2020 Impact Report, with the help of funding from Innovate UK, we are currently working on our next generation reusable packaging system, which will allow us to do reuse and refill at scale. In this way we ensure a closed loop and that no packaging ends up in landfill, incineration or the natural environment. We hope to launch our new packaging in Autumn 2021.
We conducted an early stage LCA (Life Cycle Analysis model) - based on how much carbon emissions our closed loop circular packaging system saves versus a linear single-use disposable container. Our model is based on the UK Gov standard GHG Emissions Conversion Factors and proved that if we use one item of packaging up to 10 times, we are 90% more carbon efficient than the use once and throw away alternatives.
At the end of life of our packaging, we work with our specialist UK-based recycling partner to convert our packaging into secondary materials for the transport, agriculture and infrastructure sectors. These materials themselves can then be recycled up to 6 additional times, significantly extending the life cycle of the original polymer.
Looking to the future; get involved in the conversation!
The purpose of this report is not to discourage you from recycling, far from it. It is just to tackle some of the inconsistencies that are out there in terms of facts and reporting and to continue to build the case for the sensible reuse of materials wherever possible. That is what we are committed to and we couldn’t do it without the incredible support of our Bower Collective community, so thank you!
Join the conversation with us around how we aim to create a sustainable, waste-free world by connecting with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and signing up to our newsletter for active community content on sustainability, wellbeing and amazing natural products.
1 - DEFRA Waste Infrastructure Delivery Programme
2 – DEFRA Government Statistical Service (19th March 2020)
3 – National Audit Office
4 – Georgia Elliot-Smith; Element 4 Group (8th March 2021)
5 – British Plastics Federation (Feb 2020)
6 – National Packaging Waste Database
7 – HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs)
8 - Greenpeace report ‘Trashed’ (17th May 2021)