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Recycling doesn’t work – so says Johnson

Tuesday 9th November 10.45

Recycling doesn’t work, according to Boris Johnson. Well, at least not the recycling of plastic. And to be honest, with every day that passes, I understand our Prime Minister less and less. 

Johnson has called recycling a “red herring”, claiming that it does nothing as you can only recycle plastic twice. At least part of this is factually correct – plastic can only be recycled a limited number of times – but telling people that recycling does ‘nothing’ is fundamentally wrong. 

The chief executive of the Recycling Association trade body thinks that Boris Johnson has “completely lost the plastic plot”. And I can’t say I disagree with him. Johnson’s statement sends the completely wrong message at the worst possible time. With the start of COP26, we need our world leaders to be united against climate change - that is, if we want anything to actually come from this conference.

Yes, plastic cannot be endlessly recycled. And yes, recycling won’t solve all our environmental problems. But there’s widespread acknowledgment that recycling is important and a crucial step in the right direction. It shows that climate change is a real and concrete problem that we have to address. Boris Johnson telling people that recycling doesn’t do anything is essentially telling them that climate change doesn’t matter and that they don’t have to limit their plastic use. This is extremely problematic.

Even though we can only recycle plastic a few times, those few times still make a difference. It reduces the amount of plastic we produce for clothes or bags or packaging. It may not have the largest impact, but it at least does something, which is a hell of a lot better than looking away and doing nothing as more and more plastic piles up around the world. Slightly less plastic is ending up in our landfill sites, and I’d say that that’s a good start. 

But, I would actually argue that we aren’t recycling enough plastic. Contrary to what Boris Johnson seems to think, recycling does have an impact. It may currently be small, but there is room for improvement - we can still recycle more. And the more we do so, the greater the impact it will have. 

The fact is that, in this day and age, we can’t completely get rid of plastic. There are some items that are essential, or at least useful, that I don’t think we can realistically ask people to stop using. From reusable water bottles and shopping bags to tupperware, from pens to phone cases, from children’s cutlery to toys, plastic is everywhere. Maybe I’m selfish, but I would not support eliminating all forms of plastic, especially since we do not have many viable alternatives to plastic in these cases. If you’re judging me, I ask you: can you imagine what your childhood would have been like without plastic toys? Can you imagine being forced to learn to write with a quill and ink? Some people may say that these are nothing more than first-world problems voiced by my privilege, and ok, there may be some truth to that. If you had been born a century earlier, you might not have even heard of plastic, at least not until you were older. 

However, what we should arguably be doing is pushing for a more sustainable use of plastic in our everyday lives. Using plastic is not inherently bad, especially if these items are reused as much as possible and then eventually recycled. What is bad is the excesses of single-use plastic that have been piling up in our landfills for the past 60 years. 

I agree with Boris Johnson that we need to reduce the amount of plastic we use and rely on. But, since it’s unrealistic to expect everyone to completely stop using plastic, recycling is essential. If we recycle plastic while also reducing our use of it, there is a chance that we can manage this plastic crisis, at least until we find a way to make plastic decompose harmlessly.

So, has Boris Johnson ‘lost the plastic plot’? Probably. Without recycling, our world would be a lot closer to death than it already is. And until science evolves to a point where it can completely solve this crisis, I’m sad to say that recycling is our only hope. 

Image credit: Flickr