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But what is "recycling", really?

A common misconception about recycling is that it turns waste into another product. What it really is, is turning waste into feedstock products that may or may not be used in another end-consumer product. And is most often not!

A rear-loading garbage truck collecting green bins

Recycling is surprisingly ill defined. The UK Parliament asset library defines it as:

"Recycling of waste is defined as any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes"

This definition allows the creation of both intermediate products, like pellets, which are not useful for the general public, or worse, "energy" through incineration. Which is useful for the general public, but can only be done once. You can't unburn a burnt thing and it releases anywhere between 1.2 and 1.6x the weight of the object in Carbon Dioxide equivalent global warming potential.

Paragraph 45(a) of the Environment Act 2021 (as amended) oddly downgrades this definition to become the blunt instrument of:

"(9) Household waste is “recyclable household waste” if—

(a) it is within any of the recyclable waste streams, and

(b) it is of a description specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State.

(10) For the purposes of this section the recyclable waste streams are—

(a) glass;

(b) metal;

(c) plastic;

(d) paper and card;

(e) food waste;

(f) garden waste."

Without regard to the technical feasibility of downstream recycling. This siloed, vague approach to legislation is what causes a complex separation of waste to have to occur by the consumer and material recovery process, and inconsistent approach by councils and a doubling or even tripling of waste haulage emissions to move waste about. While this is starting to be mitigated with the use of electric trucks, there is still double the emissions even from that.

What is interesting about the plethora of recycling definitions is almost nowhere defines it as the creation of new products in whole. True circularity lives there, yet none of the statutory positions seem to facilitate it and worse, it doesn't join sectors up as systems to facilitate it, nor reward those that do. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR - the memorandum is here) was a golden opportunity to reward companies for recollecting their waste, but instead, the ones doing it right, or at least wanting to, risk being lumbered paying for processing they don't use, if they create their own circular systems. *slow clap*

How much really becomes a product?

The UK has a pretty poor performance record when it comes to circularity adoption. Most circular systems are small. Blocked out of government contracts by long-term protectionist contracts of 15 to 35 years. This alone will prevent waste from reaching Net Zero unless forced to by a change of legislation.

The recycling difference is stark! The UK's low circularity rate means one small 65L really recycle bag, about the size of a kitchen bin, remanufactures more plastic into product than is remanufactured from 135 standard wheelie bins.

Over half of all of the UK's plastic waste is exported, half incinerated (both home and in those export destinations) 25% goes to landfill and 14% is recycled into manufacturing feedstock, mostly abroad.

The manufacturing process may reject that feedstock and regularly does. Recycled products only contain 10% to 30% recycled material, with the odd one containing 100% (well done Ribena). The volume of plastic dispose of is so high, the total circular volumes turned into products is only 0.7% of what's captured. does it best, which runs on Automedi infrastructure, is a new service that delivers cradle-to-cradle circularity (and back) by using a first of it's kind distributed circularity platform made up of "circular microeconomies" serving districts or individual businesses. It plugs in before conventional recyclers to allow homes, businesses, industrial parks, manufacturers and anyone else to have their plastics collected and know for sure it will be remade into another product.

The recycling difference is stark! The UK's low circularity rate means one small 65L ReallyRecycle bag, about the size of a kitchen bin, remanufactures more plastic into product than is remanufactured from 135 standard wheelie bins.

ReallyRecycle can do this because it is also it's own customer and also the manufacturer. The other upshot is it has full scope 3 emission traceability. Something that is currently impossible to trace in complex multi-actor supply chains.

Systems change is key to all of this. None of this can occur without reconsideration by both consumers and organisations, but the benefits are huge if you get it right. It's an enviro-economy in a box. So why wouldn't you?

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