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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan/Feb 2019 > All the dirt on Britain’s waste

All the dirt on Britain’s waste

We worry about plastic and anguish over what goes in which bin. But as China refuses to take our waste, recycling is in crisis. Can it be saved?
© VEOLIA

Once a year the UK has an Open House day where all sorts of places—from Downing Street to farms, mines and schools—open their doors to the public. One dismal rainy Saturday last autumn, I went along to the open house at the Veolia recycling sorting depot in Southwark. I walked 15 minutes from the bus stop through low red brick estates, across the Old Kent Road, to an industrial area with an old gas works and a bus depot. The Veolia recycling facility was built in 2012 and is housed in big corrugated sheds. I wasn’t expecting it to be a popular destination, but when I arrived I was told there was a two hour wait for a tour.

“I am on assignment,” I told the couple huddling under an umbrella behind me in the queue, “what’s your excuse for waiting in the rain to look at a load of rubbish?” Andy Readman, it turned out, was a tech strategist; his partner, Laura McGuinness, worked for a management consultant. They lived in Bermondsey and worked in the City. Laura laughed. “I think it’s a privilege to be able to look around. I want to know what happens to our recycling.” A man in steamed-up glasses in front of us admits ruefully, “it’s my partner who is very excited about recycling,” but the truth is it’s something we pretty well all do these days. Many of us—like Laura—have wondered at some point about where it all goes.

The world is being smothered by our rubbish. Islands of plastic travel the oceans. Tides wash a daily scrim of flotsam onto our beaches. The sight of plastic bags blown by the wind caught in trees is as familiar in Beijing as it is in Birmingham. It’s been unsightly for years, but the issue of plastic waste shot to prominence after David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II late in 2017, with its terrible footage of wildlife entangled in our refuse.

Not long afterwards, by coincidence and for its own reasons, China announced it was banning imports of any recyclables— including plastics. That closed off what had become a major escape route for British waste. Recycling exporters scrambled to send it elsewhere: to Malaysia, to Vietnam, to Thailand and to Poland. Within a few months other Asian countries had also imposed limits on the quantity of plastic waste they would import from abroad.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January/February double issue: A host of writers and personalities explain what they think will be the most important thing we need to learn in the new year. From Justin Welby arguing for new emphasis on learning to forgive and Lord Neuberger on the importance of a free judiciary to Hannah Fry on AI and Cathy Newman on what happens next for #MeToo—Prospect has it all. Elsewhere in the issue: Fintan O’Toole looks at Brexit from an Irish perspective, Wendell Steavenson dishes the dirt on what really happens to the waste you want to recycle, Frank Close questions why—half a century after our last visit—we’ve not been back to the Moon. Also, Michael Blastland argues that we’re ignoring the upsides of having an alcoholic drink and Clive James explores the life of Philip Larkin.