Why do we recycle fewer plastics now?

You may have noticed on our recently-published Guide to Simply Weekly Recycling that we collect fewer types of plastic now. It's something we don't want to do, but we have had to change over the last year as the markets for recycled plastic have contracted.

The Chinese way

In 2018 China stopped importing large quantities of plastic waste. That had a huge impact on global markets. For example, in 2016 China imported over seven million tonnes of plastic waste.

Suddenly the UK and other countries had to find new markets for plastic waste. Some plastics became uneconomic to recycle (it's important to remember that once recycling is collected by councils it is passed to commercial companies for which recycling is their business).

Now it’s hard to get plastics recycled if they’re not a bottle, pot, tub or tray. The recycling companies scour the recycling to take ‘non-core’ items out, which are then burned instead of being recycled. That all costs a lot of money. And residents pay the bill.

How our service has changed

In 2013 the Council started collecting all plastics. We always knew that not every plastic item could be recycled, but it was only a tiny fraction - about 2% - of the plastics we collected at the time. So our 'all plastics' policy made sense because its simplicity encouraged people to recycle more overall.

But the upheaval in the recycling markets means that's no longer sustainable. Rather than pay the recycling companies to separate out the other types of plastics and burn them, we reason it’s cheaper for residents if we now ask you to sort them out at source. So we’ve adjusted our collections accordingly.

We can reassure you that if we could get all plastics recycled, we surely would. But this is national and international problem which doesn’t look like changing soon.

Has this hurt our recycling performance?

Overall, no. Certainly, we've lost the benefit of some plastics recycling. But Epsom & Ewell residents are recycling more and more, and our performance has continued to climb. We now recycle a fraction under 56%. That's the best we've ever done and way ahead of the national average. Learn more about recycling and waste.

How is this going to be fixed?

We know that residents care about this. Many of you have told us so. But it will take national and international actions to fix it.

A year ago the government announced its Resources and Waste Strategy for England. This wide-ranging strategy looks at things like developing new recycling technologies; stimulating the recycling markets in the UK; making producers more pay for packaging waste; encouraging simpler and more easily-recyclable packaging, and introducing a plastic packaging tax.

We don't yet know what will come out of the strategy.There were public consultations during the summer, and more will follow. But we hope that it will reduce the amount of hard-to-recycle waste, and help the recycling markets.

What you can do

In the meantime, you really can help. The Surrey Environment Partnership is the partnership of all Surrey's councils working together to manage waste. Its website gives handy tips on how to reduce, re-use and recycle your waste, like using fewer single-use plastics.

Whatever you do even a small decision, like buying a reusable coffee cup, makes a real difference to what retailers sell and how much waste we generate. Thank you.