Illustration by Hannah Robinson

At the end of September, Biffa, the UK’s second largest waste management company, was fined a record-breaking £350,000 when a shipment of “mixed paper”, on its way to China to be recycled, was seized by the Environment Agency and found to be full of household rubbish, “containers reeking of vomit”, with items including sanitary towels, condoms and bags of dog poo.

On reading this headline, it was hard not to feel exasperated. What’s the message we get from this? That as an individual, no matter how little waste you produce, nor how consciously you sort the waste you do produce; those who are responsible for the management and disposal of said waste lie and then justify their irresponsible practices as essentially just doing the government’s dirty work?

Biffa proudly state on their website, emboldened in red, “We collect 1.2 million tonnes of waste per annum.” They boast that their Edmonton facility is one of the UK’s largest materials recycling facilities with a capacity to recycle 250,000 tonnes per year.

But let’s put these figures into perspective. Government figures show that in 2016 the UK generated 222.9 million tonnes of total waste, (and only 41.1 million tons of which was commercial and industrial waste). So, one of the UK’s largest material recovery facilities only has a capacity to process 0.0125% of our total waste. Come again?

Yes, part of the issue is how much we consume and therefore the amount of waste we produce. But the other issue is the severe lack of infrastructure we have to deal with this.

And yet, instead of investing in said infrastructure, companies sell waste to non-OECD countries to dispose of it for us. Richard Banwell who defended Biffa, claimed that “Biffa’s business model of exporting waste was vital to helping the government meet its recovery and recycling targets.” N.B. This target of 50% of household waste to be recycled by 2020 is under a directive of the European Commission. The recycling rate for the UK was 45% in 2017.

The Biffa group generate £990.4 million a year. Along with, Veolia, Surez, Viridor and FCC, these companies amount to the big 5 of the waste management services industry and together generated a whopping £4.8 billion in 2015/16. Roughly 77% of “commodities” traded by Biffa each year are exported. Now that’s all well and good if we’re actually seeing them recycled into new products and packaging. But how many other shipments out there are like the one that earned Biffa their hefty record-breaking fine?  In 2016, the Phillipines returned 2,400 tonnes of mislabelled Canadian waste. Not to mention the carbon footprint of shipping containers almost 12,000 nautical miles. And, what’s more, I agree with the judge’s ruling on this case, who said that it is beside the point that China willingly accept this waste time and time again.

Is it a symptom of our times that every decision I make is laced with climate guilt? Perhaps. With Ted Talks popping up on my timeline with tips on how to lead a zero-waste lifestyle, I mutter to myself about the irony, and then remember it’s probably just my cookies reacting to my research for this article. But I think what this story proves is that it’s not just about the individual; it reflects the ecocidal status quo of our society and highlights that this is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed as such, and then tackled accordingly.

So, what is it that we need?

If companies are to justify their packaging and/or products as attempts to meet sustainability quotas/targets, then we need to make certain that they do end up being recycled. We need a transparent waste management system.

How about we invest into improving recycling literacy by educating the entire UK population on how to recycle effectively, making recycling more user-friendly. We should develop standards, that won’t disappear once we leave the EU, across councils and county borders to avoid confusion and therefore reduce error.

We need a landfill ban for biodegradable waste and investment into more waste processing plants on home soil. We need the infrastructure to cope with our insane amounts of waste.

But above all, it’s time to stop kidding ourselves, and face up to the reality of our (collective) waste, recyclable or not.