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Southwark Green: Why are there different recycling rules in different boroughs?

A layer of plastic coats the earth, choking life. Bottles lie at the bottom of the ocean, seabirds starve with bellies stuffed with plastic. As we breathe and drink, we – along with all living creatures – take in tiny, microparticles of plastic, writes Eleanlor Margolies…

And yet we still find ourselves having to ask, ‘Does this go in the recycling?’ Why are there different rules in different London boroughs? The muddle contributes to a feeling of helplessness about the plastic problem.

One obvious step would be to have a London-wide waste policy.

In March, Caroline Russell, Green London Assembly member, asked Sadiq Khan to work towards a Zero Waste London, but the mayor refused, leaving the responsibility with local boroughs.

In the same month, the government shelved the bottle deposit scheme it had promised in 2018. The UK returns just 50 per cent of plastic bottles, as against more than 90 per cent in Germany and Denmark, where they have deposit schemes.

Then in May came the report from Greenpeace revealing the huge quantities of British plastic exported to countries where it is dumped or incinerated in uncontrolled conditions. Search for #Wasteminster to see a shocking visualisation of the amount of plastic waste the UK sends abroad each day.

Southwark Council’s website states that most of its recycling is carried out in the UK but ‘sometimes, we export materials on what otherwise would be empty ships to make new products in another country’.

Veolia, who manage Southwark’s waste, told me that ‘Veolia employs, enforces and polices a stringent duty of care audit to ensure that the material goes to genuine outlets that recycle it into new products.’ It would be helpful to see this audit published.

Recycling is only part of the answer. As the ‘Plastic Free Communities’ campaign puts it: we must both ‘kick our addiction to avoidable single-use plastic, and change the system that produces it’.

It’s getting easier to cut out some single-use plastic by choosing reusable water bottles and coffee cups, solid shampoo and conditioner bars, grocery refills and loose fruit and veg. Try it – and encourage others. You’ll find you save money too. But while UK supermarket aisles still glitter with acres of non-recyclable plastic packaging, we need government legislation to cut single-use plastic at the source.


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