StoriesPart of Toxicity

Delusional recycling and the problem with plastic

Many of us are guilty of putting things in the recycling bin that we know can’t be recycled. Exposing our dangerous tendency towards wishful thinking when it comes to waste, Arianne Shahvisi digs into the UK’s shaky recycling infrastructure and its dependence on overseas dumping. She argues that it’s time to put a stop to waste colonialism once and for all.

Words by Arianne Shahvisi|artwork by Ifada Nisa

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Painted artwork with vivid saturated colours. The scene shows a landscape with a blue river running through the middle of green, tree and grass covered banks. On the distant bank to the left, the trees look healthy and covered in leaves. On the near bank to the right, the trees are leafless and have twisted trunks and branches. This bank is littered with rubbish, mainly abandoned furniture, some of which is lodged in the tree branches. Floating in the middle of the river is a lone red chair, bobbing about beneath a blood red sun in the blue sky.
Delusional recycling and the problem with plastic. © Ifada Nisa/It's Freezing in LA!.

I’d been ‘wishcycling’ long before I realised there was a word for it. My local council – Brighton, the only UK city represented by a Green Party MP – is locked into a 30-year contract with waste-disposal giant Veolia, which will recycle no plastic other than bottles. Pots, trays and tubs are ineligible, regardless of the reassuring claims on their labels, and if bottles are mixed with these lower-grade plastics, the whole lot may be too contaminated for recycling.

Veolia refuses to amend the contract and expand its recycling capacity, citing the expense of processing low-quality plastic packaging.

I know all this but continue to place non-recyclable plastics into the recycling bin. Consigning them to landfill is discomfiting, an act of defeat. I’m not the only one: ‘wishcycling,’ a form of delusional recycling, is a modern affliction.

Believing our rubbish is more recyclable than it is eases our consciences about the volume of waste we produce. An act of disposal is transformed, through self-deception, into a good deed. It is telling that recycling should have such virtuous associations. Environmentally speaking, it’s the least desirable of the three ‘Rs’ – reducing and reusing involve no additional processing – but it has the advantage of posing little threat to our consumption habits.

Magical thinking pervades our understanding of waste. In the Global North, we take for granted that we can throw things away, where ‘away’ is a mythical place so distant, so beyond the borders of our moral imaginations, as to require no further thought.

Of course, there is no ‘away’. There are just places and peoples who are deemed to matter less than others. Following flows of waste reveals quieter forms of colonialism. Extraction is not limited to the theft and accumulation of valuable goods, it’s also characterised by the expulsion of pollution and harmful waste. Mining minerals is an extraction of value; so is dumping toxic refuse. Both enrich certain world regions at the cost of others.

The toxic legacy of plastic rubbish

Part of the appeal of plastics as they flooded mass markets in the 1950s was their durability. They persist, largely unchanged, over long periods of time. The plastic I wishcyle today will take 500 years to decompose. Particles of plastic are already being deposited in ocean sediments; our waste crisis will be legible in the fossil record to any geologists left to interpret it.

Unmanageable volumes of waste plastic are a side effect of runaway consumption. After the US, the UK creates more plastic waste per capita than any other country globally, amounting to 1.1 kg per person, per day. Rather than recognise this and focus on the urgent need for reduction, the government instead prides itself on the fact that 45.7 per cent of all UK waste is recycled. Yet that figure represents the share of waste sent to recycling. Its fate is another matter.

Our recycling infrastructure cannot keep step with our waste. Just 10 per cent of our plastic is recycled at UK facilities, while 17 per cent goes straight to landfill. Although most plastic is biochemically inert, toxic chemicals are often added to improve durability or flexibility, and these leach into soil, rivers, groundwater and plants.

There are 21,000 legacy landfill sites across the UK, often buried under parks and public buildings, quietly seeping degraded pollutants into the earth and water.

A further 46 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste is incinerated. While the heat generated is converted to useful electricity, burning plastics emits even more airborne contaminants than the equivalent quantity of fossil fuels.

Waste incinerators are three times more likely to be found in deprived areas, within which people of colour are overrepresented. In Brighton, a staggering 78 per cent of plastic waste feeds the incinerator in Newhaven, its less affluent neighbour.

Detail from a larger painted artwork with vivid saturated colours. The scene shows landscape where the trees are leafless and have twisted trunks and branches. The land is littered with rubbish, mainly abandoned furniture, some of which is lodged in the tree branches.
Delusional recycling and the problem with plastic. © Ifada Nisa/It's Freezing in LA!.

“In the Global North, we take for granted that we can throw things away, where ‘away’ is a mythical place so distant as to require no further thought.”

The shameful evidence of British waste abroad

Most worrying of all is the plastic that does go ‘away’. Around 19 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste is exported, amounting to 1.8 million tonnes every day. Lower-income countries are financially incentivised, through legal and illegal channels, to receive waste from higher-income countries.

Malaysia, Turkey, Poland and Indonesia are the chief recipients. Countries receiving waste are often already struggling to manage their own plastic disposal, and investigations have shown that shipments are liable to be illegally dumped at unregulated sites, or burned.

It is unlawful to export waste unless the exporting state can guarantee that it can and will be properly recycled or incinerated to provide energy. Yet the waste industry is poorly regulated.

In 2019, one of the UK’s largest disposal firms, Biffa Waste Services, was found guilty of shipping 175 tonnes of household waste – including used menstrual products, nappies and non-recyclable plastic – to China, having labelled it as “waste paper”.

Biffa argued that its consignment complied with China’s standards for recycling, if not the UK’s. The Environment Agency emphasised that waste must be deemed fit for recycling in its country of origin, not its destination, and acknowledged the need for increased monitoring and steeper fees for violations.

Plastic waste degrades so slowly that product branding remains decipherable for years or decades. British rubbish is therefore easy to spot. Greenpeace have photographed Asda, Tesco, Lidl, and M&S labels on illegal dumps in southern Turkey, and have found fragments of recycling collection bags bearing the names of UK councils in Malaysia, along with familiar margarine tubs and crisp packets.

A 2021 BBC investigation revealed plastic “bags for life” snagged in landfill sites in Romania, along with kitchen appliances with the distinctively British BS 1363 three-pin plugs. Much of this waste is burned on illegal dumps on the outskirts of Bucharest, where levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide – pollutants known to cause premature death – are among the highest in Europe.

The rest languishes on ill-managed landfill sites, where it is easily blown or washed into storm drains, ending up in the sea, and perhaps the swollen belly of some hapless marine creature. As I write, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a 50-year-old gyre of plastic debris the size of a country – is swelling with detritus from the fishing industry, sewage and landfill.

Detail from a larger painted artwork with vivid saturated colours. The scene shows landscape with a blue river running through the middle of green, tree and grass covered banks. Floating in the middle of the river is a lone red chair, bobbing about beneath a blood red sun in the blue sky.
Delusional recycling and the problem with plastic. © Ifada Nisa/It's Freezing in LA!.

“As I write, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a 50-year-old gyre of plastic debris the size of a country – is swelling with detritus.”

Waste colonialism and wishful thinking

Who is to blame? The levels of waste produced by individuals in the UK far exceed what could be considered fair use of a planet on which billions of us – human and non-human – depend. We are taking more than our share of resources and generating more than our share of damage.

The UK government has facilitated this overconsumption by placing economic growth above every other consideration. It has also failed to invest in recycling infrastructure, outlaw the use of low-grade plastics, and adequately regulate waste exports.

Instead, it has made use of globalisation to facilitate its “not in my backyard” philosophy, coolly outsourcing the environmental and human cost of its outsized consumption. ‘Away’ is the home of others. Other people’s ancient, sacred forests are felled, other people’s landscapes are scarred with mines, other people’s air, soil and water is sullied. Other people’s health is threatened.

The waste produced by individuals in the UK far exceeds what could be considered fair use of a planet on which billions of us depend.

As the costs of waste colonialism have become more stark, our options for paying other places to burn or bury the evidence of our overconsumption have dwindled. Having previously received the bulk of the UK’s discarded plastic, in 2018 the Chinese government launched a campaign against yang laji: foreign waste.

In 2020, Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s Environment Minister, ordered the return of 42 containers of illegally imported plastic waste to the UK with the warning, “If people want to see us as the rubbish dump of the world, you dream on.”

In 2021, the Basel Convention Plastic Waste Amendments came into force, prohibiting shipments of hard-to-recycle plastic to low-income nations. The US, the world’s most prolific producer of plastic waste, opposed the convention, but must nonetheless abide by it.

We must confront the fact that recycling, wishful or not, will not solve the problem of a world awash with plastic. If the UK is to take the bolder step of radically reducing its waste, it must close its borders to harmful exports and keep its rubbish in its own backyard. There can be no greater antidote to our delusions than to look out on our own rolling hills of litter.

This article was edited by Harry Lloyd from It’s Freezing in LA! and is part of a series of articles about toxicity. It also appears in Issue #9 of It’s Freezing in LA! magazine.

About the contributors

Black and white photograph of Arianne Shahvisi

Arianne Shahvisi

Author

Arianne Shahvisi is a Kurdish-British writer and academic, based in Brighton. She holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge, and is Senior Lecturer in Ethics at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Arianne writes regularly for the London Review of Books and has also recently been published in the Guardian, Novara, and the Economist. She is writing a book on the philosophy of social justice, which will be published by Penguin in 2023.

Black and white head and shoulders photographic portrait of Ifada Nisa.

Ifada Nisa

Artist

Ifada Nisa is a self-taught artist and illustrator based in Indonesia. Her work helps her communicate moments, ideas, and feelings using colour and tone to explore space, stillness and belonging.