Act to combat plastic pollution

Plastic bottle in the ocean
Most plastic sent for recycling in Waltham Forest is shipped abroad, and often ends up polluting the ocean (credit Greenpeace/Justin Hofman)

Environmental campaigner Klaus Graichen questions the council’s poor recycling record

I won’t be the only one who learned last year about the horrendous situation of our oceans; they are being littered and contaminated with plastic, killing more and more fish, seals, turtles and whales. Disintegrating plastic ends up in the food chain and even in our own bodies.

But isn’t the problem happening far away, in Asia? Surely our recycling department in Waltham Forest knows what it is doing? I looked at the council’s website and was reassured: “Your recycling is sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Edmonton to get separated. It is sorted both mechanically and by hand, before it is sent to manufacturers to recycle into new products.”

I wanted to find out more and went to the website of Biffa, the waste management company that runs the MRF in Edmonton. They show an impressive video clip of their plastic recycling, but also state that “Biffa trades 570,000 tonnes of commodities every year, of which 440,000 tonnes are exported to international markets”. That figure from their website in November 2018 was a total of all recycling materials including metal, glass, paper and cardboard. But what about the specific figures concerning plastics?

I wrote to the council and requested the relevant information. They eventually responded: “All dry recycling collected in Waltham Forest is sent to Biffa for sorting – 62% of this material is then sent abroad to be reprocessed. In 2018 the following streams were sent to the following locations for reprocessing; paper to Germany, India, Indonesia; card to Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam; glass to the Netherlands; plastics to Turkey, Philippines.”

They still haven’t said exactly how much waste plastic is exported. Does the council not know? Should they not want to know? And what exactly is happening with our waste plastic once it arrives in Turkey and the Philippines?

A recent report by Ocean Conservancy stated that Thailand, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are responsible for up to 60% of the plastic waste in the oceans. In 2018 the Guardian also reported: “UK plastics recycling industry is under investigation for fraud and corruption. Watchdog claims plastic waste is not being recycled but left to leak into rivers and oceans.” Meanwhile, the Echo last month stated that local recycling rates are falling, despite people’s growing awareness of plastic pollution.

So what can we do? I think we can start by using less throwaway plastic packaging in the first place. Why buy bottled water, when filtered tap water is just as good? We can also try to put pressure on the council, urging them to first find out themselves what is happening to our plastic waste, and to publish the facts instead of closing their eyes to it. We should be monitoring what is happening to our exported waste material once it reaches destinations abroad.

This may go beyond the scope of Waltham Forest, but if it is not done on a national scale, maybe the Mayor of London should get involved. We can all start by demanding action is taken.