One​ of the shiniest new initiatives at COP28 in Dubai last December was the world’s first ‘Voluntary Recycling Credit’ scheme, which will allow companies to ‘offset’ their waste products by purchasing credits from recyclers. The marketplace for these credits will be blockchain-based, so that transactions can be tracked. Building on the dubious success of ‘carbon credit’ programmes, the scheme won’t force companies to produce less waste but will enable them to meet their net-zero targets by investing in recycling, thus propelling the growth of the global recycling industry. It’s tempting to laugh at this near-parodic display of green libertarianism: commercial actors, unhindered by state legislation, corralling one another to redirect capital flows by way of cryptocurrency, a technology so energy-intensive that its use in the scheme threatens to overwrite any projected ecological pay-off (the emissions generated by cryptocurrency each year are currently equivalent to those of Portugal). The launch of the VRC initiative, barely registered in the Anglophone press, indicates two things: first, that we are deeply in need of novel solutions to the global waste crisis; and second, that big business is still hoping we can recycle our way out of the mess we’re in.

A few days after the announcement, I visited a recycling sorting centre, or Materials Recovery Facility, in South London. When I mentioned it to people beforehand, they responded with wary fascination, or found the prospect so boring that they thought I must be joking. Waste is something most of us would rather not think about, and recyclable waste lacks even the queasy glamour of the truly untouchable. It’s not ‘matter out of place’, as Mary Douglas said of dirt, but matter temporarily out of place, or sort-of-in-place, or might-one-day-be-back-in-place. Public trust in the recycling industry is low, dented by years of scandals over illegal dumping and mass exportation, and our understanding of what happens to the things we recycle is based on patchy and sometimes contradictory information. In the UK, local councils contract private companies to manage their waste collection, which is why guidelines can differ so much between boroughs. But although mismanagement of exported waste is rife, recycling remains a lucrative business and it’s in the interests of contracted companies to salvage and sell on as much of their stock as they can.

A recycling centre is a good place to go for a glimpse into the 21st-century industrial sublime. The one I visited had a suspended complex of steel steps and walkways jutting out over a multi-tiered superhighway of conveyor belts, each carrying its own stream of detritus. The waste was jostled across fleets of platforms, which filtered out large scraps of cardboard, before being fed past huge magnets to remove clumps of metal, then churned through a series of automated sorting devices, which use near-infrared scanners to eject materials based on their size and grain. A complex air-filtration system prevents the smell inside the plant – starchy and sour, with a soiled undertone from all those dregs and residues – from escaping into the surrounding area. Standing above the maze of conveyor belts, you can watch as the relics from a thousand domestic scenes – broken toys, bank statements, vodka bottles, handwritten notes – float serenely into the jaws of the machines.

Despite all the high-tech trappings, the sorting process has not been wholly automated. ‘Nothing beats the human eye,’ my guide, Anne, told me. Every batch of waste is first ferried past a team of pickers, who pull out anything that could jam or damage the machinery. (Anne proudly displayed a series of bent frying pans, metal rods and oil drums.) Later, another group of pickers sweep contaminants from the paper and cardboard stream. Minimising contamination is a constant battle. According to the industry’s own figures, only 80 per cent of the contents of the average recycling bin are potentially salvageable. Half of the remainder is non-recyclable dry waste, and the rest is sludge: food, plant matter, bodily fluids. Anything that gets siphoned off is treated as regular garbage, to be sent to a landfill site or, more likely, to an energy-from-waste plant, which is where much of the UK’s rubbish ends up. These operations incinerate rubbish to power generating turbines; they currently provide around 3 per cent of our electricity supply. But although energy-from-waste sidesteps some of the hazards associated with landfill, such as groundwater contamination and methane emissions, it is far from ecologically neutral, producing around a tonne of carbon dioxide for every tonne of waste burned.

Last year, the government reviewed Defra’s 25-year Environmental Plan of 2018, triggering headlines about ‘mad’ plans to introduce ‘SEVEN types of recycling bin!’ There has never been much public appetite for recycling reform in the UK and Defra’s attempt to ensure the ‘near elimination’ of landfilled biodegradable waste by 2028 is likely to meet further resistance. But anyone who has watched a line of pickers tear out great handfuls of unsalvageable waste from the conveyor belts – tarpaulin sheets, clotted masses of nappies, countless shopping bags – will find it hard not to think that the money and labour spent on sorting contaminated recyclables might be better invested in minimising contamination at source. When we throw something into a recycling bin without being confident we should – ‘wishcycling’, the industry calls it – we are perhaps imagining (if we bother to imagine at all) that the dirty work will be taken care of down the line by some technological wizardry, and that if our damp pizza box or polythene bag gets sloughed off to landfill, well, at least we tried. We tend not to dwell on the possibility that we are simply outsourcing the work to another pair of human hands. Waste and recycling constitute one of the most dangerous industries in the UK; last year, six people died in accidents at work. Most of the serious incidents involve vehicles or heavy machinery, but the sorting lines are hazardous too: all warehouse operatives wear full PPE and stab-proof gloves. In addition, the hours are long, the work is monotonous and the wages are low, especially by comparison with other jobs in the industry. And while companies like to boast about the steps they have taken to improve working conditions, there’s no getting round the fact that the job involves spending eight hours a day inhaling the olfactory equivalent of a really bad night out.

Wishcycling continues because information about what can and can’t be recycled remains at best limited and at worst bewildering. Consider the labelling system used in commercial packaging, which accounts for about a third of all plastics production. The green Möbius loop – created for a 1970 Earth Day contest by a 23-year-old college student – indicates that it is theoretically possible to recycle a material. This means that it often appears on packaging, such as thin plastic film, for which there is no recycling infrastructure. The ‘green dot’ – a kind of yin and yang of two embracing arrows – doesn’t have anything to do with the recyclability of a product; it just means that the manufacturer ‘financially contributes to the recovery and recycling process’. The plastic recycling code, three black arrows with a number in the middle, is only useful if you know what the numbers mean and which kinds of plastic are accepted by your local scheme. Plastics labelled 1 (the polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, of clear plastic bottles) or 2 (the high-density polyethylene, HDPE, of milk cartons) are widely recycled, but the likelihood diminishes once you hit 3 (the low-density polyethylene, LDPE, of gas and water pipes) and 4 (the polyvinyl chloride, PVC, of that troublesome thin plastic film) and becomes practically fantastical once you get to 6 and 7 (takeaway boxes, crisp packets, polystyrene and everything else).

Poor public awareness can have large repercussions. Between 1988 and 2018, China imported 47 per cent of the world’s plastic waste. In the US, 70 per cent of all plastic collected for recycling was sold and shipped to Chinese processors; in the EU, the figure was 85 per cent. ‘It’s hard to fully measure the extent to which China’s economic miracle was enabled by Western waste,’ Oliver Franklin-Wallis writes in Wasteland (2023). Such cheap raw material proved irresistible to the country’s growing manufacturing base, even as polluted waste water flowed into Chinese towns and dioxins killed off livestock populations. But as purity standards decreased, and the labour and environmental costs of recycling grew, China began to rethink its role as the West’s dumping ground. In 2017, Xi Jinping announced new legislation, with the characteristically epic name ‘Operation National Sword’, which introduced strict controls on the purity of imported plastics and banned unsorted waste paper and textiles. Almost overnight, China’s recycling imports dropped by 99 per cent. The international recycling trade was sent into a tailspin. Exporters were forced to send recyclables to landfill or for incineration. The quantity of waste burned in England that year increased by half a million tonnes.

Recyclables began to flow into other East Asian countries: Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Vietnam. Responding to concerns that UK recycling exports were being processed abroad under hazardous conditions or, more often, simply dumped in landfills, the Tories pledged in 2019 to reduce exports to non-OECD countries. Last November, the EU followed suit, announcing plans to ban shipments by 2026. But it’s unclear whether this legislation can plug the international plastics flow without a corresponding expansion of infrastructure and reform of global markets. The UK has some national recycling capacity – type 2 plastic collected in the centre I visited is sent to Dagenham to be converted into pellets, which will eventually become milk bottles – but more than 60 per cent of retrieved plastic waste is still exported, mainly to Turkey, Poland and the Netherlands. Environmental organisations have called on the government to ban plastic exports altogether, pointing out that much of the recyclable plastic sent abroad is either burned for energy or sent on to the same countries that were vetoed under the 2019 guidelines. A report on exports by the Plastic Soup Foundation, a marine conservation group, called the situation a ‘neocolonial scandal’.

One of the aims of the updated Environment Plan is to eliminate ‘avoidable’ plastic waste by 2042, and avoidable waste as a whole by 2050. But recycling rates in the UK have been hovering at around 45 per cent for the past ten years and it’s becoming clear that meeting those targets will require more serious intervention, especially in packaging and manufacturing standards, than governments have historically been willing to consider. In many cases, straightforward solutions are available. Black plastic, for example, is often (accurately) described as non-recyclable. But this has nothing to do with its composition; it’s because the machines in recycling plants can’t detect it. Black plastic is popular with manufacturers because it conceals imperfections – especially problematic when a product has been made using scrap material from many different sources. Tens of thousands of additional tonnes of plastic could be recycled in the UK each year if companies simply dyed their products a different colour, or added a small quantity of detectable pigment, as Unilever recently agreed to do with its black Lynx bottles.

The problem is that manufacturers are keener to imply that their products are sustainable than to admit that they aren’t. In 2020, the head of the American Plastics Industry Society remarked that ‘if the public thinks that recycling is working, they are not going to be as concerned about the environment.’ A good show of ‘greenwashing’ can divert attention from the ecological cost of mass-producing single-use items. Coca-Cola, which uses three million tonnes of plastic each year, insipidly maintains that ‘just as we offer many drinks with no sugar, we want all our drinks to come with no waste and no emissions.’ Yet the company has lobbied for years against reforms to solid waste collection: an internal memo leaked by Greenpeace in 2016 indicated that it was preparing to ‘monitor’ and ‘fight back’ against green policy in the EU and elsewhere. Small-scale packaging innovations such as ‘attached’ bottle tops, which are meant to keep stray caps – generally too small to be detected by sensors – from falling into oblivion, are little more than distractions (and if you’ve recently drunk Coke from a plastic bottle, it’s likely that you just gave the cap an extra twist and yanked it off anyway).

Initiatives such as the Voluntary Recycling Credit scheme are a gift to packaging giants as they attempt to rebrand themselves as part of the ‘circular’ economy. But the truth is that while some materials are more circular than others – another under-reported outcome of COP28 was the ratified pledge to recycle all tin cans by 2050 – recycling always carries an environmental cost. It expends energy, sustains resource extraction and creates waste of its own. One 2020 meta-study, which analysed such factors as ‘human toxicity’ and ‘fossil energy’ alongside global warming and ozone depletion, found that only 20 per cent of recycled products had a significantly lower environmental impact than their newly produced counterparts. The situation is worst when it comes to plastics, which generate a cumulative 3.4 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, 90 per cent of which are incurred in the production process alone (that’s before you consider the dangers of airborne microplastics). The solution has been clear for years: ban unnecessary single-use plastics, introduce penalties for manufacturers and drastically reduce overall production. The long-awaited Plastics (Recycling, Sustainability and Pollution Reduction) Bill currently before the House of Commons will, if implemented, make some headway, but without a globally co-ordinated effort – of exactly the kind that COP is supposed to deliver – it will be hard to secure any significant progress.

On the bus back from the sorting centre, I found myself noticing all the plastic littering the drains and kerbsides. Roland Barthes, in one of his moments of reverie, described plastic as ‘the very idea [of] infinite transformation … impregnated throughout with this wonder’. But the plastic I could see was only impregnated with mud and Lucozade. When I got home, I looked up Mary Douglas’s phrase and found she had lifted it from William James, who used it in a very different context, in a discussion of the theological justifications for evil. Evil, James writes, is a concept invented to describe ‘elements of the universe which may make no rational whole in conjunction with the other elements’ and which ‘can only be considered so much irrelevance and accident – so much “dirt” as it were, and matter out of place’. At the sorting centre, I’d watched a large, ornate Bible drift down the paper stream. Feeling, irrationally, that someone should draw attention to its existence, I gestured towards it and asked if it might clog the machinery. ‘Oh, no,’ Anne said. ‘We get them all the time.’

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