Just because plastic waste is collected doesn’t mean it will get recycled. How shifting the meaning of recycling is blinding us to see the painful truth about our part in plastic pollution: Plastic rubbish travels the world already before it enters the oceans.

Rubbish collection and neglection

I’ve been living in different countries throughout the last few years – with a focus on diving. Therefore I have not only seen how rubbish is (NOT) collected in many places, but how much ends up one way or another in the oceans. Just recently I had a terrible experience: A motivated dive team and attentive guests collected lots of rubbish during dives, carefully disentangling fishing lines and nets from in between corals, catching plastic bags floating by and picking up every plastic cup and bottle that isn’t already fused into the reef or otherwise completely overgrown. We knew we cannot win against the plastic flood this way, but at least it feels good to clean up – or so we thought. Until we figured out that the boat crew tossed it back into the sea when nobody was looking. Shocking realisation!

Easy to point fingers, and believe me we did. Something along these lines: All these uneducated people in countries with growing populations have no understanding of how toxic plastic is for the environment, they don’t care about nature or hygiene and that’s why there is so much plastic accumulating in our seas (and all along the food chain, in fact, eventually coming back to us …). But what about us? I’ve heard it so many times by so many divers (hey, that is the world I’m living in): THEY are responsible, after all, WE have great rubbish collections. Our waste is separated and treated and for sure is not part of the ever-increasing plastic disaster in the oceans worldwide.

What does recycling actually mean?

In Germany, we are proud of our system to separate waste. We have different coloured bins (like in many other countries btw). In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if actually, a Scandinavian country happens to follow a way more specific separation of rubbish on a household level, but anyway we claim the title and call ourselves “Recycling World Champion” (DW: Plastic waste and the recycling myth). But what does recycling actually mean? What is happening with plastic in Germany? As it turns out, not a lot.

Recycling plastic is much more complicated than recycling glass or paper. At least if you stick to the original meaning of recycling (Oxford Dictionary): “The action or process of converting waste into reusable material.” Ideally, this material can be used for the same purpose it was used for in the first place. In reality, even glass bottles, unless they are actually cleaned and reused, will be recycled to become something different than a glass container, e.g. used as an ingredient for road building, etc. But hey, I can live with the fact that office paper gets recycled into cardboard boxes. Still great!

How to (NOT) recycle plastic: Creating your own comfort zone

Pressed and stacked PET bottles. Plastic waste collected and recycled?
Ready to ship (Picture by Thomas Kohler flickr_4602797933 with CClicense).

Recycling plastic is so much more complicated. There are so many different kinds of plastics to start off with. Unfortunately, almost most products and particularly packaging is made of a variety of polymer types, even though only single-variety plastics can be recycled. So in order to make the recycling of plastic a reality, producers would have to design the products and packaging differently from the start (see also “Plastic Planet” for more info on that topic). Recycled plastic bags or juice bottles can be turned into flower pots, coat hangers, and other plastic products that are not associated with food or personal hygiene.

Exporting plastic waste is only allowed if it is recycled. Nevertheless, there are German products found in (open) rubbish dumps, e.g. in Malaysia as the Handelsblatt reveals in February 2019. Until the beginning of 2018, Germany used to export most of its plastic waste to China. Then China put a hold on this and as exporting rubbish is the cheapest way to deal with our garbage and we believe in a free market that is problem-solving capabilities, new destinations in Southeast Asia were explored: Plastic imports from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand have increased dramatically (National Geographic News). Fantastic, that’s our recycling done then!

Not quite yet, we still have an excellent infrastructure in Germany (and within Europe) to deal with what is left of our own rubbish mountains. Let it burn, baby! OK, it is not really turning waste into reusable material, but we generate heat and energy this way and, even though it takes a lot more energy (and new raw materials) to manufacture a replacement product from scratch, we still call it recycling (Tree Hugger on Germany and Sweden). And that makes us World Champion!

What makes German recycling so efficient?

"Love rather than consume" - Message on glass collection container in Berlin. Plastic waste collected and recycled.
„Love rather than consume“ – Message on glass collection container in Berlin (Picture by Nicola Jaeger for PowerShift e.V.).

To be sure, we don’t base our recycling quota of plastic on what is actually happening with the rubbish; the statistics for recycling plastic waste in Germany are based on the amount that is collected and separated. But that’s where it ends. Some might get actually recycled, but most of it won’t. It doesn’t matter. We have done our part. We buy and consume. We separate (mostly) and put the waste neatly together. But what happens to all our rubbish afterwards is really not our responsibility anymore, or is it?

No more!

In case you do want to know more about the depressing truth, take a look at the Greenpeace study “The recycling myth – Malaysia and the broken global recycling system” published at the end of 2018. For some first ideas on „Behavioural and production changes“ take a look here.

Avaaz petition (with the pathetic title: Before another whale dies …) goes out to environment ministers of Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, and other leaders: “Add plastic under the Basel Convention on hazardous waste and then take bold steps to end plastic pollution everywhere!” This could put an end to exporting plastic “for recycling”. Greenpeace NZ is campaigning for “ocean sanctuaries across the planet, and for NZ to back the strongest Global Ocean Treaty at the UN to enable this”, you can add your name here.

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