Brighton recycling: A load of rubbish?
Brighton Pavilion is the only constituency in the UK to have a Green Party MP. Brighton is home to the biggest offshore wind farm in the world and has been awarded numerous sustainability awards over the last decade. You’d have to try extremely hard to find a plastic straw and it seems as though extinction rebellion posters and climate-change protests and are on every corner. You’d think this city’s recycling rates would be amongst the best in the country – but they’re far from it.
In the latest recycling league table derived from household waste data, Brighton and Hove Council ranked 317th out of 345 councils in the country. Recycling rates across the city are currently at less than 30% – a very sub-standard score considering the national average is 44% and the UK currently has to meet an EU target of 50% recycling by 2020. David Gibson, ward councillor for the Hanover and Elm Grove area, said it will be impossible for Brighton to reach this target in the suggested time-frame.
However, this is not the fault of lazy residents, but more to do with the council’s contract with recycling company Veolia. The company have been accused of refusing to adapt the 30-year contract to allow Brighton and Hove council to collect more plastic waste. Currently, the company
only accepts plastic in the form of clear plastic bottles and refuses items such as trays, tubs, punnets and any coloured plastic. Signed in 2003, this could mean that plastic recycling in Brighton might not incur until 2033.
Steph Powell, a Green Party councillor, explains:
“Recycling is a big problem. We are tied into a 30-year deal that a previous Labour administration agreed to which is now not fit for purpose by a long shot and will cost a great deal of money to change. But we are committed to working with all councillors and officers to change this.”
The problem with plastic
This severe lack in plastic recycling is pretty shocking considering every year the UK throws
away 300 million kilos of flexible plastics. As a sea-side city, Brighton should be particularly careful considering plastic waste makes up 85 per cent of the pollution on our beaches around the world. Surely, if there’s one thing a ‘green’ city should be working on – its recycling plastic. Elaine Hills, a Green Party councillor for the Hanover district, explains that Veolia’s refusal to adapt is because of the limited market for low-grade plastics.
She said: “The bottom has fallen out of the plastics recycling market, apparently, so it’s difficult to be assured that recycling will actually happen for some types of plastics, the ones not currently recycled by our local authority. While some authorities claim to recycle certain plastics, there are questions as to whether this is actually happening in some places as there is little market for low-end plastics. This is something I need to explore further, as I can’t believe that this is the case for all authorities that recycle a range of plastics.”
Elaine says recycling boxes are considered ‘contaminated’ if over 10 per cent of the contents are not materials recycled by the council. This fact, combined with Veolia’s refusal to recycle a wide range of plastics has sparked fears among residents that tons of recyclable material is being incinerated or dumped in landfill. For this reason, many of Brighton’s residents are turning to alternative recycling collection services, such as Magpie. Established in 1996, Magpie offers a GreenBox recycling collection service that recycles a wider range of materials, including most types of plastic, textiles, tetra packs/juice cartons and aluminium foil.
1,200 of Brighton’s residents have opted-in for this scheme which offers a weekly collection for £25 per quarter, which works out at about £1.92 a week. Although you have to pay for this scheme, the
company try to keep it low-cost and non-profit. Tracey Stripp, a Magpie employee of 7 years, says initially, this was a great solution to the problem. But now that the bottom has fallen out of the plastics market, the small business is overwhelmed with low-market materials.
Magpie currently only has a small customer-base and any hopes of growing the business are
digressing as the company is currently working at a loss. She said:
“We are really struggling to make ends meet, we’ve had to increase our prices significantly over the last few years just to cover the running costs of the business. Before, when there was a market for plastics, we used to get paid to recycle; but now we have to pay to recycle.”
Tracy also shares residents’ concerns that plastic and other materials, such as paper and cardboard, are not actually being recycled but instead incinerated at the recycling centre in Newhaven to power homes. She explains:
“I’ve heard that when residents hang their washing out to dry they get black specks on their clothes, leading residents to believe that plastic is being burned not far from their home.”
Burning plastic releases dangerous chemicals such as sulphur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals, as well as particulates. These emissions have been known to cause respiratory ailments and are potentially carcinogenic. Tracey says residents in Newhaven are growing increasingly concerned for children growing up in the area and the effect the incinerator could have on their health.
However, Veolia claims that only un-recyclable materials are sent to the incinerator and the power generated is used to power 25,000 homes across the city. The company released a statement
“We are a recycling company and we recycle viable material. All recycled material that is collected is assessed for levels of contamination when presented at our Materials Recovery Facility in Hollingdean. Loads might be rejected if it is deemed to contain too high levels of contamination – this is to protect the quality of our end recycled product and ensure the best environmental performance. There is no reason, and it would not make any sense, for us to reject recyclables.”
In an attempt to back the recycling company, a Brighton and Hove City Council spokesperson said:
“Claims that Veolia is burning recycling because the plant is overwhelmed are completely untrue. Only loads brought in by drivers that are contaminated are turned away, which is what’s happened in this case. This is to ensure the rest of the city’s recycling does not also become contaminated. Contaminated material cannot be recycled and is burned to help create energy to power 25,000 homes rather than be taken to landfill.”
However, burning plastic also creates toxic ash which then ends up in landfill and the high temperature fires emit more carbon than a coal plant. According to National Geographic, whether plastic waste is being used to power homes or not, recycling plastic waste saves twice as much energy and has significantly lower health risks.
So, what’s being done?
The Greens pushed last year for a costing into wider recycling and food waste provision, which is believed to have been carried out, but no further information has been released yet. The party also claim to have run some successful campaigns which have led to the reduction of single use plastics at major events, such as the Brighton Marathon and Brighton Pride. There is already a visible hatred for single-use plastic in Brighton, with many pubs and restaurants refusing to provide plastic straws, take-away containers and cutlery and cafés heavily encouraging the use of re-usable cups. However, there is room for improvement.
The council should also be running campaigns to urge businesses to cut down on their plastic use and discourage the manufacturing of plastic. Scientists argue that plastic will never fully decompose, but will only break down into smaller and smaller pieces, called micro-plastics. This means that plastic will exist indefinitely and every piece of plastic ever made is still on Earth today. This is undeniably unsustainable and the reason why plastic is such a huge problem. If we are going to save our planet from being swamped by plastic pollution, a new sustainable material needs to be mass-produced in plastic’s place.
However, this does not seem to be reason enough for the council, the government or anyone else to stop allowing plastic to permeate our lives. The crux of problem – like many things in life – is money. The council, the government and manufacturers are highly unlikely to invest in a more sustainable system if there is a cheaper option.
So, protesting customers have begun to fight back. A recent movement has seen consumers sending back their empty plastic packaging to supermarkets and retailers, or ripping packaging off and leaving it on the counter. Others have opted to avoid the supermarkets altogether, and buy their weekly shops from markets where you can bulk buy and bring your own re-usable containers to fill up. In this way, unhappy customers hope to send a message to those endorsing single-use plastic and create a call-to-action to stop plastic manufacturing.
What needs to be done?
It is clear that things are currently moving far too slowly and action is urgently needed. If the problem is a limited market for low-end plastics, it is clear that we should be pressuring the companies producing the plastics. We should be hassling manufacturing industries, supermarkets, retail firms and delivery companies to majorly reduce their production and consumption of low-grade, single-use plastics.
Over the last few years, a whole host of activist groups have begun to campaign for change. One of the largest and most significant movements in the UK has come from the Extinction Rebellion group. Extinction Rebellion uses non-violent resistance to protest against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and the risk of social and ecological collapse.
Ross Torode, a spokesperson for the group, said:
“Our city of Brighton, that we all live, share, breathe, socialize, relax and work in, can be a very proud place to live in many ways. But, I do not currently feel proud of the scale of waste we are casting aside as ‘general waste’ nor do I feel proud of the approach to which we are made aware of the importance of recycling.”
“Most importantly, I feel, is the need to educate children and adults alike on the ways in which we can purchase and reuse products in order to save the need for investing such a great deal of energy in recycling. As a city, we need to face the issue of recycling and look at how we can enhance our system for maximum efficiency, but, the area of paramount importance is to address this plastic problem at the roots of our consumer society and work together to reduce the need to purchase items with such short usage.”
Ross says that we urgently need to establish a system where planned obsolescence is no longer profitable for manufacturers and they are instead forced to produce long-lasting, quality products at affordable prices. He suggests that both the government and council should stop allowing shops of all kinds (food, hardware, industry, education and business) to import and sell such low-quality, single-use or non-recyclable products.
It seems that a significant problem is the lack of awareness of the intricacies of the situation. This issue could be solved by spreading leaflets, circulating social media posts and holding educational events in order to educate people on a global scale about the ways they can reduce their plastic consumption. Ross emphasises that this is essential in order to deliver an element of shock to the people of Brighton and the rest of the World.
So, is Brighton’s recycling a load of rubbish? There is definitely room for improvement – as long as plastic exists then recycling companies should be making every effort to recycle it, along with every other material that could be given another life. However, it seems what we really need to address is the root of the problem – the manufacturing industry. Recycling can be improved by mass collaboration between designers, re-processors, consumers and manufacturers who should be using recyclable materials wherever possible. But, if manufacturers were committed to mass-producing sustainable or decomposable materials, we wouldn’t have to waste so much time, energy or money into recycling.
If we are to see significant change, we urgently need consumers everywhere to reduce their plastic consumption, demand others do the same and ask their local governments what they are doing to resolve this global epidemic.