A plastic bottle takes approximately five seconds to produce in a factory. It takes around five minutes for you to drink and put it in the bin. This plastic bottle can then stay in our environment for five hundred years, writes Caroline Ansell.
This “take-make-dispose” attitude to resource consumption is now rife across our economy and producing a mountain of waste along with it. To save money and resources, we need to change our ways. Becoming a more circular economy is how we can do this.
A circular economy is one that keeps our resources and materials in the economy for as long as possible, rather than using them once and then throwing them away. In order to do this, we need to embrace a plethora of resource management techniques, such as reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, recycling and reducing unnecessary waste wherever possible.
The waste measures in the Environment Act will create a better route for consumers to recycle their packaging waste. But packaging is only one source of waste and recycling is only one solution.
At 23.9kg per person per year, the UK is currently the world’s second largest producer of e-waste and is on track to take the top spot in the coming years. With the government in the process of reforming its existing Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment regulations (WEEE), the timing could not be better to tackle this growing waste stream.
Disposable vapes have become the poster child for this issue. We now buy 7.7 million single-use vapes a week and inside the plastic casing of these vapes hides enough lithium to power the batteries of 5,000 electric vehicles. Without sufficient recycling infrastructure and information in place, these critical resources are being wasted.
Existing regulations require retailers to provide a way for customers to correctly dispose of their e-waste when they are selling them a new version of it. This can take many forms and can see individual initiatives or multiple businesses clubbing together with one scheme.
Incentivised take-backs are becoming the norm, with big brands like Apple and Currys offering vouchers or money off the next purchase. But vapes that continue to litter our streets provide a clear example of how loopholes in the existing regulations need to be closed.
Disposable vapes are not designed to last so the need to recycle them is obvious. But the same is not always true for other sources of e-waste. Material Focus recently found that there are 7.5million unused electrical children’s toys hidden in UK households, but 72% of these toys still work. This story is the same for old phone chargers, games consoles, radios, phones, laptops, and DVD players, to name just a few products.
Breaking fully functioning goods down for recycling is not only unnecessary, but would represent an inefficient use of energy, materials, and carbon emissions. By hiding items away in our cupboards and out of action, we are required to extract new raw materials to keep up with our demand for products.
The problem is that consumers and businesses are not incentivised to see the value in old, but functioning tech. Not knowing what to do with it when you have finished with it means that a lot of these items are gathering dust in our cupboards rather than being donated or resold.
Providing routes to recycling is, therefore, only part of the solution. Although some products are more easily reused and repaired than others, we need a more holistic regulatory framework that encourages reuse, not just recycling. The existing WEEE regulations do not.
Although often spoken about in terms of pollution and carbon emissions, our increasing demand for resources, if not met by a supply of materials that we have already extracted, puts greater pressure on the natural environment. Moreover, by not providing appropriate methods for the disposal of the waste we create, we are enabling litterbugs, endangering wildlife and humans in the process.
E-waste is one example of how our linear approach to resource consumption is becoming the norm. Construction and fashion are two more. The truth is that our entire economy could benefit from the principles of the circular economy. Defra has its work cut out. But with packaging reforms in motion, and WEEE regulations being developed as we speak, the government can now pick its next target.
First published by PoliticsHome. Caroline Ansell MP(Eastbourne) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.