The devastating plague of soft plastics

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This post is a bit of a meandering journey that explores what is the best end-of-life option for this stuff! In the post I waver between calling it ‘soft plastic’ (what it is called in Australia) and ‘plastic film’ (in the UK).
I have previously posted about how difficult I have found it to reduce my plastic use in Cardiff (although, the situation is going to improve very soon!). When a friend shared this Plastic Footprint calculator with me, I thought I should take the quiz to see just how dire things had become. I worked my way through the calculator. Straws? No, except when there is a misunderstanding. Packaged fruit and veg? Very rarely. Drinks in plastic bottles? None, except a few months ago when I tried to donate blood. Takeaway cup? Literally can’t remember the last time.
So, the calculator told me I’m awesome (that is literally what it said…but the point of the story is that it doesn’t really feel that way at the moment). The point is more that it somehow fails to consider all the plastic packaging that I have to use to buy every bit of food apart from fruit and veg. We probably fill a bag like you see above every month or so, which I think would equate to much more plastic than the number of straws I have ever used.

What is the solution then?

To understand the best ways to reduce waste, it helps to have a look at the waste hierarchy, which basically tells us the best order to manage waste. There are so many versions of this around, but the one below is from the European Union Directive 2008/98/EC on waste (so it is pretty official).

Even without referencing the hierarchy, we all know that the best thing to do is to prevent the waste being produced at all. But a girl has got to eat! Although I buy as much as I can find in paper packaging, until a bulk food store opens somewhere in Cardiff, generating some plastic film waste is inevitable. Reuse? This stuff is pretty useless to use a second time, it gets completely ripped and reusing it wouldn’t actually reduce the amount that I use anyway (side note – I have come across ecobricking, which doesn’t make much sense for me because (a) I don’t have any plastic bottles, and (b) I can’t imagine any projects that would use them, but a very interesting movement all the same).

​Which leads us to…recycling! There are schemes to collect plastic bags and film in both the UK and Australia. Back in Melbourne, way before I started taking zero waste seriously, I used to assuage my plastic-induced guilt by diligently sorting all our waste and taking the soft plastics back to the supermarket to be recycled through the REDcycle program. Even when we started shopping mostly at bulk food stores, some bits of soft plastic would still sneak in so we’d take those to the local recycling depot (a wondrous place that really deserves its own post).

When we arrived in Cardiff and slowly realised that there are no bulk food stores here, I was relieved to find that at least there was a plastic film recycling scheme at supermarkets here too. The Recycle Now website has a wealth of information, including a postcode locator to find a drop-off point near you (I don’t think it is entirely accurate because it missed the closest one to me). Packaging in the UK also has very handy labels telling you what can be recycled, so it is pretty straightforward to work out what should be put in there.

For a while I merrily went back to my diligent waste-sorting ways, making dedicated trips to the one supermarket I found nearby with a bin (that is it in the picture above). Until one day a colleague pointed out that in Cardiff, all residual waste goes to a waste to energy plant. The Cardiff Energy Recovery Facility generates enough electricity to power 50,000 households while diverting 350,000 tonnes of waste from landfill each year. So much better than Australia, where there are literally no waste to energy plants and residual waste inevitably ends up in a landfill (sometimes too much space is an issue…).

I felt pretty conflicted, because there are some issues with soft plastic recycling, which I had ignored in Australia because the alternative was landfill and anything seemed better than that. Of course, looking back up at the waste hierarchy, recycling should come before waste recovery but in this case I’m not sure if it is the best option.

So what are the issues?

  1. Soft plastic recycling isn’t perfect. While materials like aluminium (and even some plastic bottles and containers) can be recycled many times over with no changes to their material properties, the same is not true for soft plastics. Rather than be remade into more crinkly bags, soft plastics tend to be made into big blocky things like bollards and street furniture. For these applications, material properties like strength and flexibility don’t matter so much. The Australian War on Waste series had an excellent segment which shows the reycling process and the types of products created.
  2. There isn’t a huge demand for the types of products you can make with recycled soft plastics (as noted at the end of the War on Waste clip linked above). One of Australia’s leading life cycle assessment experts pointed this out to me in a training course – when assessing the whole life impacts of a product, you need to consider what the alternatives are that the product you are studying would displace. In this case, rather than preventing the need for additional extraction of virgin plastic feedstocks (i.e. oil), the bollards and furniture would usually be made from pine plantation timber (which even has some carbon sequestration benefits).
  3. I can’t seem to find much information about where the soft plastics collected at supermarkets in Cardiff or Wales actually go. Information made available by supermarkets is super vague. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) have some very interesting information on their website, but none directly answer this question. One of their reports mentions the PlasRecycle plant in South East London, which opened in 2013 as the first dedicated recycling plant in the UK for post-consumer plastic bags and films. So I’m hoping it all goes there (because China certainly isn’t taking it any more)!
  4. Things can go wrong, even with the best intentions. Again, for the Australian War on Waste series, GPS trackers were placed in three different bags of soft plastics which were put into one of the supermarket REDcycle bins. I can’t find the specific clip for this one, so you’ll have to watch to whole series to see it. To destroy the punchline of the story, one of the bags ended up at a landfill site. Returning to my current dilemma, I would be so sad if my carefully separated plastics were transported around the country (world?) and ended up at a landfill somewhere rather than just going to the waste to energy plant right here in Cardiff.

So, where does that leave us now? I’m still not really sure, and there are at least another few weeks until our current bag of plastic film will be full. In the meantime I am getting very excited at the prospect of bulk food stores opening in Cardiff this summer, so this won’t be such a big issue for me for too much longer!

I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this, please let me know in the comments below or on twitter (@karabrussen)!

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