Is getting clean creating a dirty problem for recycling?

A lot of emphasis has been placed on single use plastics as the major culprits of the plastic pollution problem. Bottled water, sodas and coffee cups are often singled out and people are discouraged from using them in favour of personal refillable cups or bottles. Yet research shows that these types of bottles aren’t necessarily the biggest problem when it comes to single use plastics and recycling. Instead there’s a hoard of plastic containers in every household that are largely overlooked – bathroom products and toiletries.   

Consider all the bottles of shampoo, conditioner, face wash, body lotion and shower gel that can be found in the average household. Every brand comes in a different colour, different size and shaped bottle and the branding is often printed on the bottles. Many brands use dark colour plastics because they are believed to be more stylish. So while a great deal of thought goes into the packaging design in terms of colours, branding and usability, it seems not as much effort goes into considering the lifecycle of the packaging.

Most consumers assume that toiletry containers can and will be recycled. However, research shows that it’s not always the case. According to a recent news article, consumer group Which? blames ineffective recycling labelling and a primary reason so many cosmetics containers end up in landfill. Another reason cited for poor recycling rates is that many products are packaged in black plastic containers, which are notoriously difficult to recycle. We know there’s a lot of emphasis on moving away from black plastic, which is great.

Are there better bathroom habits people can employ that’ll help curb the plastic problem?  Or does the solution lie with the recycling industry?

Environmentalists urge people to use bar soap instead of liquid soap and one of the reasons is that it can reduce the amount of plastic bottles that end up in landfill. But this involves changing people’s habits which is notoriously hard to do. Some forward thinking brands are encouraging consumers to refill and reuse the same containers. If consumers were to adopt these habits it could make a bit impact of the amount of plastic needing to be recycled.  I know there is a shop local to me in Fleet, Hampshire that offers this service.

But that doesn’t change the problem of all the plastic packaging already in circulation. To address this, some manufacturers are starting to get on board with the circular economy and changing their packaging to use 100% recycled PET plastic. It will be great if they can keep the cycle going and continue to use plastic resources already in circulation rather than manufacturing from virgin resources. As the demand for availability of recycled packaging grows, it’s creating an opportunity for recycling firms to expand their operations.

So, some plastic lifecycles are being extended and this is ultimately where we want to be headed, using, reusing, repurposing and recycling the plastic already in circulation. But what about plastic that just gets thrown away and that ends up in landfill, polluting rivers and the ocean? Isn’t that ultimately what we’re trying to stop?

Research from 2019 revealed that in the UK only 50% of bathroom packaging is recycled. This is significantly lower than household kitchen and food packaging which is recycled at a rate of up to 90%. It seems the responsibility doesn’t just lie with manufacturers or the recycling industry, but also with consumers.

A collective effort will need to be made to educate consumers on what can be recycled and how it can be recycled. In many areas curbside collections help to encourage recycling efforts, simply because it means people have to put in less effort. So while education may play a role, recycling companies may also need to consider how they can meet the needs of consumers in terms of convenience if they want recycling rates to increase.

It’s clear that there is still lots that can be done.  Are these the only things needed to improve recycling and circular economy efforts or are there other ways in which the industry could be making appositive impact?