Lies, damned lies, and recycling

The media story recently quoted here is full of praise for the remarkable levels of plastic recycling (especially of plastic bottles) in Norway. However, the figures in the story don’t seem to make sense. The article states:

“Its success is unarguable – 97% of all plastic drinks bottles in Norway are recycled, 92% to such a high standard that they are turned back into drinks bottles.”

It goes on to say:

“The government places an environmental tax on all producers of plastic bottles. The more they recycle, the more that tax is reduced. If they collectively recycle more than 95% – which they have done every year since 2011 – they do not have to pay the tax.”

It then explains the deposit/refund scheme which provides the incentive for consumers to return all empty bottles to collection points. This seems reasonable – and is just what many countries did, decades ago, with glass bottles.

You would expect, from the above, that a large proportion of new bottles in Norway are made with recycled PET, but it isn’t so. The article says:

“Recycled material only provides 10% of the plastic used in bottles in the country, the rest – because oil is cheap – comes from newly manufactured “virgin” material.”

And goes on to say:

“The system produces enough high-grade material to meet 80% of demand – much of which is currently exported.”

So 90% of plastic used to make new bottles is virgin – and the “recycled” stuff is exported. So to what country is it exported? And what does the recipient do with it?  This article from 2105 shows where it goes:

“Export of waste to Sweden has helped us to achieve our national environmental target of 80 percent recycling, says Ellen Hambro from the Environment Directorate.”

And once in Sweden, the plastic is incinerated.

So, it seems that if a country collects and sorts plastics from its waste streams, and then exports it, that is classified as “recycling”. What the recipient country does with that waste does not make any difference to the exporting country’s statistics.

Something that Norway has definitely achieved is a high rate of bottle collection. That is a good thing, and is the first step to ensuring that waste does not find its way into the environment as litter. However, to call it “recycling” is pure sophistry. The waste is clearly not being recycled, it is being incinerated.

I think we need a bit more truth and honesty over what is going on. As people in the forum know, plastic recycling is difficult. We need to acknowledge that, and accept all forms of activity that involve “waste plastic as a resource” as being useful in the fight against pollution – as it all helps to stop plastic entering the wider environment. We need to end the lies that say exported waste equals recycled waste.


The media is beginning to pick up stories that claims of plastic waste recycling are untrue.

See this story on the BBC website

The National Audit Office (NAO) says over half of the packaging reported as recycled is actually being sent abroad to be processed.

As a result, it says, the government has little idea of whether the recyclables are getting turned into new products, buried in landfill or burned.

While an illusion of success has been created by the UK’s system for recycling packaging, the NAO says, the reality may be quite different.

Its report finds that:

– The government has turned a blind eye to underlying problems with the waste system
– Firms may be over-stating the amount they are recycling
– The Environment Agency has only carried out 40% of the recycling checks it planned to

Most statistics on recycling are not of actual recycling but of separate material collection and ‘landfill avoidance’… whether that material is re-used to make more ‘stuff’ is happily ignored 🙁

Great post! I’m not too shocked that news media is using hyperbole. The plastic problem is a global issue and statics from any one country doesn’t shed proper light on it.  I wish more people could see your post @frogfall

Criminal Waste

Why are criminal gangs getting involved in organised waste dumping? Is it the ‘new narcotics’? And how are communities and the authorities coping with this growing illicit trade?

BBC Podcast Available Here

BBC investigations into organised crime and the waste handling industry in the UK. This includes the sorting of waste (plastic and other materials) – and it has started to reveal the horryfying scale of modern slavery in waste sorting operations.

This may indicate that sorting post-consumer waste is an inherently uneconomic activity, and that less labour-intensive solutions to waste handling, processing, and disposal are needed.

UK recycling industry under investigation for fraud and corruption

This story in the Guardian shows how the lies of the “recycling industry” are now being revealed.

Allegations that the agency is understood to be investigating include:

– Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist

– UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans

– Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands

– UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.