Boris Johnson’s untrue remarks about plastic recycling are the real ‘red herring’

It was very disappointing to hear UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments to young children who genuinely want to play their part in saving the planet for their future, particularly as much of what he was saying is simply not true.

Recycling plastic is not a “red herring”, as Johnson claims. It is a major part of the solution to creating a circular economy – and plastics such as the ones we are responsible for, polyolefins, can be recycled and reused many, many times.  

We can physically recycle plastics multiple times and we can also break the plastic down chemically to its original molecules to make brand new plastic.

Stopping the production of plastic, as the Prime Minister suggests, is no solution at all. Polyolefins are essential and valuable materials used in a wide variety of industries and applications.

Polyolefins protect your food; they bring water into your home safely; they keep the electrical power cables inside your walls safe; they are your kitchen implements and they even clothe you. They enable farmers to grow crops to feed you; they are also the reusable crates that bring products to the shops; they equip scientific laboratories that produce medicines to keep you well and form the protective clothing to protect you against disease; they make the toys that entertain and teach your young children and the school equipment that will then turn them into the inspiring adults of the future.

Finally, the flexibility, adaptability, light weight and strength of polyolefins makes an enormous contribution to reducing the carbon footprint of industries, vehicles and processes all around the world – something other non-plastic materials cannot match.

Recycling polyolefins therefore keeps extremely valuable material in our economies, a material that plays such an enormously valuable role in society and in creating a sustainable world.

At the Polyolefin Circular Economy Platform (PCEP), we completely agree that plastics must not go to waste in landfill, and especially not in the oceans. We are committed to transforming our linear industry into a circular one. We are working to reduce unnecessary use of our material, keep it in use for as long as possible, and once products reach the end of life – recycle them into high-quality new raw materials to close the loop.

The challenge is not about recycling plastic. The challenge is the national infrastructure to do this effectively. The recycling technologies already exist. The problem in the UK is that the government has not invested in the infrastructure to enable plastics to be collected, recycled and reused at sufficient scale.

Making plastic from non-fossil resources such as “seaweed, banana leaves, or coconuts” as Johnson suggests is all well and good, but these will also end up as waste and this is not the solution to the problem of plastic waste. The solution is for governments to ensure there are simple and effective collection systems so that the industry can sort, recycle and reuse all these valuable materials. It is also fundamentally important for politicians to encourage and enable consumers to play their part in these collection systems – not to discourage people from recycling at the very start of their lives by throwing around red herrings about producing no plastic at all.

For more great examples on how the polyolefin industry is progressing towards circularity, take a look at what PCEP members have been working on here.

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