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Who is responsible for reducing our plastic waste?

Plastic waste

Last week, China introduced a ban on importing plastic waste and debates kicked off on a proposed ‘latte levy’ to cut coffee cup waste. Guest author, Hannah, joins us here on Which? Convo as she ponders whether it’s time we took a bit more responsibility for our own waste?

Today was my recycling day and I diligently put out our waste. Admittedly, there was more than usual thanks to the Christmas excesses, but as ever, my mind turned to how to consume less plastic as I squashed it all into the green bin.

Waste in the UK

Last week, China introduced its ban on importing plastic waste, meaning the UK can no longer ship its recycling to China. We’ve been sending an incredible 500,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling to China every year – that’s more than a quarter of all our plastics – but now the trade has been stopped.

So, what are we going to with it all? It’s no shock to hear the UK Recycling Association saying that the UK cannot deal with that much waste. And Recoup, an organisation which recycles plastics, says China’s imports ban could lead to stock-piling of plastic waste and incineration and landfill.

And according to a report published on Friday, in the UK we use and throw away around 2.5 billion takeaway coffee cups. Using these non-recyclable coffee cups produces around 30,000 tonnes of waste every year. Some MPs are now calling for 25p ‘latte levy’ on takeaway coffee cups to cut waste.

If you watched Blue Planet II recently it was hard not to be concerned about our passion for plastic, as David Attenborough explained how marine life is being affected. Greenpeace estimates that 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans each year, killing marine life, threatening ecosystems and contaminating the fish we eat.

Recycling has hit a low point

Last April, I wrote here on Which? Conversation about how few throwaway plastic bottles are made from recycled materials – just 7%, according to a Greenpeace report.

And, the news of China’s importing ban on plastic waste comes at a time when UK recycling rates have flatlined for five years – Keep Britain Tidy says that rates dropped to 44% in 2016. Now that we‘ve lost our ability to recycle much of our plastic in China, the knock-on effect on our recycling rates could be disastrous.

Solving the plastic problem

In November, the Chancellor announced that the government is considering taxing single-use containers, following a four-week consultation on bringing back deposit return schemes for bottles. The idea has been backed by retailers, including Co-op and Iceland.

I like this idea as it puts responsibility on both the retailer and the consumer, plus it’s been proven to work in other countries. In the UK, just 57% of all plastic bottles are collected for recycling, compared with up to 90% in countries that have deposit return schemes.

But I also believe in taking more personal responsibility and this year I’ve made it my resolution to consume less plastic. Here are a few ways that I have started:

  1. 1. Using tubs instead of plastic wrap to store food in the fridge and special ‘bento’ boxes for the children’s packed lunches
  2. 2. I got a Sodastream fizzy water maker for Christmas so I don’t have to buy bottled fizzy water – I would highly recommend this to fizzy water lovers!
  3. 3. No more plastic packets of ready-sliced cheeses – my new cheese slice creates the same thin slices for sandwiches
  4. 4. Buying loose fruit and veg instead of ready-packaged produce in plastic trays – and reusing the small plastic bags from my local fruit and veg shop
  5. 5. Taking a reusable coffee cup to cafés when buying a takeaway coffee.

Have you made any small changes like this to try to reduce your plastic consumption? How much personal responsibility do you think we should take and how much should be placed on the government and industry to make major changes? Do you think a plastic deposit-return scheme could help reduce waste?

This is a guest contribution by Hannah Jolliffe. All views expressed here are Hannah’s own and not necessarily also shared by Which?.

Comments
Member

I still suggest the way to start to tackle waste packaging – plastic or otherwise – is to reduce the amount of unnecessary packaging used in the first place.

Member
Elisabeth Leedham-Green says:
7 April 2018

Those plastic wrappers which come round magazines and the like are well suited to taking to the supermarket to hold loose fruit and veg.

Member
Patrick Taylor says:
23 January 2018

Please note the reduced life of the modern microwave oven.

Waste is another major problem. Due to their relative low cost and ease of manufacture, consumers are throwing more electrical and electronic (EE) equipment away than ever before, including microwaves.

In 2005, across the EU, 184,000 tonnes of EE waste was generated from discarded microwaves. By 2025 this is estimated to rise to 195,000 tonnes, or 16 million individual units being sent for disposal.

Dr Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, from the School of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science, explains: ‘Rapid technological developments and falling prices are driving the purchase of electrical and electronic appliances in Europe. Consumers now tend to buy new appliances before the existing ones reach the end of their useful life as electronic goods have become fashionable and ‘status’ items. As a result, discarded electrical equipment, such as microwaves, is one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide.’

Another major contributing factor to the waste is a reduced lifespan of microwaves. It is now nearly seven years shorter than it was almost 20 years ago. Research shows that a microwave’s life cycle has decreased from around 10 to 15 years in the late 90s to between six to eight years today.

Read more at:
phys.org/news/2018-01-microwaves-bad-environment-cars.html#jCp

Member

My microwave oven dates from either the late 80s or early 90s, is used daily and is still clean and presentable. It has no turntable, though there is a microwave distributor just above the roof of the chamber. It was one of the first with electronic controls, but otherwise it is a very simple construction. I suppose I could replace it with a more sophisticated oven with convection heating or steam but that adds complexity and more that can go wrong.

In my experience, complicated products are more likely to go wrong. My neighbour’s Land Rover had to be taken away on a transporter yesterday. It had died after 10 months.

We have discussed smart TVs losing their apps because they are outdated, resulting in TVs being scrapped even though they are otherwise in good condition.

It’s not just plastic bags and bottles that are a problem, but they are something we can all relate to and do something about.

Member

Patrick,

You should look at the waste figures for washing machines if you really want a scare.

Almost all modern machines having a plastic outer tub or tank on them now, or some sort of composite material but, plastic to the most fo us.

There is no need for that and to make matters worse, many if not most are now sealed so when something gets jammed in them, bearings fail etc there’s not any option but to scrap the machine or buy a whole new tub unit.

Monumental amounts of needless waste.

Yet for many years vitreous enamelled or stainless steel tanks that were serviceable was just fine.

Manufacturers will say they’re more reliable but I’d challenge that as, they say that based on use figures but as the things are so expensive, nobody buys them!

Then there’s dishwashers with injection moulded inner tubs instead of stainless as well. Far more common in the US though than the EU.

Wavechange often cites plastic as a problem where it’s (to my mind) not but everyone seems to miss where it is a problem and, detrimental to consumers, at least in my opinion it is.

Injection moulded fridge inner liners make sense, anti-bacterial, easy to clean and so forth, that makes sense. Plastic control panels for shock avoidance, especially on areas that can be exposed to moisture, again makes sense.

But some use of plastic is, in my opinion, purely cost led to reduce production and ticket price in store and for no other reason of any significance.

So, EU wide at least, the using of probably millions of tons of the stuff could be halted very easily. Aside the huge benefits gained through longer lasting, more serviceable products.

But that requires some common sense I’m afraid and a change in legislation and/or standards.

K.

Member

I have only cited three problems with plastics, as far as I can recall. Firstly the increased fire risk when used in cases, secondly plastic components that are poorly engineered and break, and thirdly that some white plastics can go yellow with age. I’m actually a plastics enthusiast and have done research relating to production of novel plastics that are compostable.

I fully agree for the need for new legislation and/or standards.

Member

I have just replaced my combi microwave circa 1990, although the convection was still working, the microwave was not. So as I frequently use both, a decision had to be made whether to keep it and buy a new microwave at only half the price of a combi. Due to its age I decided to replace the whole thing and bought a new combi which, at the end of the day saves on your energy usage. For example, one jacket potato takes 15 minutes using combined combination + microwave as against 1 to 1.1/2 hrs in a conventional oven.

It’s certainly not good news if the new model is expected to have a shorter life span as buying new at an inflationary linked price, apart from convenience, ultimately defeats the objective of saving money on energy bills.

The same principle applies to CH boilers, but of course there is added environmental issues, although according to The Telegraphs Jeff Howell, condensers still emit dangerous toxins into the atmosphere which can erode the metal on your neighbours car if left standing on their driveway, so I hate to think what these toxins are doing to your neighbours and the interior of their homes every time they open their windows.

Member

Hopefully you will be as lucky with your new oven, Beryl.

This will be the article you are referring to about CH boilers: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/advice/9978580/Jeff-Howell-how-can-we-deal-with-steam-from-a-condensing-boiler.html

The acidic condensate can shorten the life of boilers and I would not want to park my car below a vent.