We need to look beyond recycling plastic

Having seen the dire state of waste management, it is now clearer than ever that we need to think bigger.

Rats run amok. Cockroaches scuttle along the floor. Plastic bottles earmarked for recycling get chucked into piles of rubbish destined to be burned. Materials once separated get mixed up in the chaos of a never-ending conveyor belt of detritus. Welcome to life in Britain’s hotchpotch waste recycling system. This week the Telegraph published the results of a landmark investigation into what happens to the waste we put out each week for collection. An undercover reporter was dispatched to a recycling site in west London where the rubbish from four local authority areas is processed. Staff, it appeared, were given precious little time to sort through materials. The result? Plastic bottles were put in bins destined for the local incinerator.

Consumer credit has become a way of life for many of us. And companies large and small have battled to keep pace by churning out ever more goods laden with plastic. On the labels of these goods is an alphabet soup of symbols about recycling. The CEO feels he has done his bit. It’s “recyclable”. Consumers feel they are making a responsible choice. Everyone goes home happy. But plastic can be recycled only a handful of times before it becomes useless.It can’t be made into something new ad infinitum. And as a result, however well functioning your recycling system, almost all plastic will end up in the environment sooner or later. Much will be exported to countries incapable of dealing with their own output let alone rubbish generated elsewhere. Last month Malaysia announced that it was overwhelmed with Western waste and was to send 3,000 tonnes of it back to the countries of origin. Places we have used as dumping grounds are rightly fighting back.

In 2018 some of the world’s biggest food and drink producers signed the G7 plastics charter in Canada. Consisting of a low-bar selection of lukewarm promises, the charter is a perfect example of the fake leadership that has done almost nothing to stem the flow of detritus into our most precious natural ecosystems. From Bali to Blackpool, a technicolour yawn of spewed plastic blights our once pristine beaches. Recycling plants in London and Lahore alike fail to deal with the increasing deluge sent to them everyday. Plastic bottles adorned with meticulously designed labels amount to little more than branded pollution.

Business got us into this mess. Yet business can be the greatest platform for change the world has known. Global research and development spending exceeds $1.7 trillion. Powered by the advancement of technology, companies are questioning and seeking to control how we move, how we live, and how we love. Augmented reality is changing the way we experience the world around us. Artificial intelligence is transforming how we get around cities. Business’s constant pursuit of better means nothing is sacred. If companies the world over put half as much effort into rethinking our relationship with and misuse of plastic, we would be well on the way to solving the global waste crisis.

Recycling has become code for responsibility. But this is not enough. In the 2020s business has to take responsibility for what it produces – from when a product leaves the factory to when the consumer discards it after use. It is no longer enough to plonk a recycling logo on a bottle and have done with it. Complacency must give way to a sense of potential culpability. My generation grew up with a vision of a bright, clean future of equality and leisure time. Our children have a very different dream of their future, a vision of climate catastrophe. We need to create three more Rs; perhaps more important than the current “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Instead let true leaders embrace responsibility, reinvention and re-imagination. We need to reimagine a future – a brighter, cleaner, more optimistic one – for the next generation. It is their birthright and so far we are failing them. Real leaders know this. Business is more innovative than it has ever been. In the 2020s untold riches await those brands brave enough to confine the myth of plastic recycling to the annals of history.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of A Plastic Planet