How green is that recycled product?

27th of October 2011
How green is that recycled product?
How green is that recycled product?

In today’s eco-conscious world, we’re all looking for any and every opportunity to do more to protect the environment. Of all the options open to us, perhaps one of the most immediate and obvious is making the switch to recycled products. But just because a product is recycled, does it necessarily mean that it’s green?  John Haddow, environmental manager at bpi.recycled products tells us more.

In today’s eco-conscious world, we’re all looking for any and every opportunity to do more to protect the environment. Of all the options open to us, perhaps one of the most immediate and obvious is making the switch to recycled products – such as 100 per cent recycled refuse sacks. But just because a product is recycled, does it necessarily mean that it’s green?

One company well placed to comment on the issue is leading manufacturer of refuse and recycling sacks, bpi.recycled products. As Europe’s largest polythene recycler it recycles some 70,000 tonnes of polythene waste every year, using it to create products including its flagship Green Sack range of 100 per cent recycled refuse sacks.

As John Haddow, environmental manager, explains: “When it comes to recycled refuse sacks, not all products are created equal. This is especially true when you consider that a large number of 100 per cent recycled refuse sacks are actually produced in the Far East. It’s an approach that ensures lower product costs – but what many people don’t realise is that it also entails a far higher price for the environment.”

Product miles and higher carbon footprint

We all know the benefits of recycled products in terms of diverting waste from landfill and conserving resources, but one key factor that users of 100 per cent recycled refuse sacks often overlook when assessing green credentials is a product’s carbon footprint.

“Today, more than two-thirds of Europe’s plastic waste is exported for recycling outside of the EU,” explains John Haddow. “To put that into real terms, the total European exports of plastic waste reached a staggering 2.27 million tonnes in 2008, with around 87 per cent of that material going to China. This is despite the fact that there is currently significant unused capacity for recycling in Europe itself.

“There are obvious cost benefits to using Far Eastern recycling capabilities but it does result in recycled products - refuse sacks included - with massive product miles. As the waste is transported to the Far East and reprocessed before the finished item is re-exported back to Europe again, many 100 per cent recycled refuse sacks may have travelled up to 20,000 shipping miles before reaching their final destination. That leaves a considerable carbon imprint.

“By marked contrast, a refuse sack made from recycled European waste at European facilities will have a carbon footprint of up to one-third lower than one recycled in the Far East. When it comes to actual carbon emissions, a refuse sack recycled in Europe produces just 1.15 tonnes of CO2e per tonne of polythene compared to the 1.70 tonnes for sacks recycled in China.”

Lower costs with higher emissions

But product miles are not the only factor that can contribute to a product’s carbon footprint. Inefficiencies in energy supply have an effect too.

As John Haddow points out: “While Europe has strict legislation governing energy generation and supply, countries like China continue to use large amounts of fossil and non-renewable fuels. As a nation, it actually ranks as one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas producers, emitting more CO2 than the US and Canada combined.

“This stems largely from the fact that China is still a developing country and to ensure maximum profits, many factories continue to use coal – the cheapest yet dirtiest form of energy. China actually generates around two-thirds of its electricity from coal-fired power stations.”

As a result, the manufacturing process of producing a 100 per cent recycled refuse sack in China would incur a far higher environmental cost than the same manufacturing process in Europe.
Plus it doesn’t stop there. Even the vehicles used in China have an impact. Unlike European heavy goods vehicles, which are required by law to meet strict carbon emission standards, comparable vehicles in China are not governed by anyway near the same level of legislation. They are only assumed to meet Euro II emission standards which in turn implies their CO2 emissions are more than 10 per cent higher than the current generation of Euro V European vehicles.

Problem solved, or shifted?

Plastics are now the fastest growing category of our waste stream, second only to paper waste. Combine this with evolving EU guidelines designed to reduce the amount of waste being sent to landfill and increasing charges for waste disposal, and it’s easy to see how exporting waste abroad can appear to be the best option. But in adopting this approach, it seems we’re only solving one problem to create another.

As John Haddow points out: “Levels of pollution in China continue to grow with its overall impact on the environment being overlooked in favour of economic development. The situation has become so bad that in 2007 it was estimated that only one per cent of the country’s 560 million city inhabitants were breathing air deemed safe by European Union standards.”

Exporting plastic waste for recycling in China is only serving to compound the issue. When it reaches China, if any of this waste appears to be contaminated, it is simply discarded - much of it to the detriment of the surrounding environment. A lack of legislation regarding proper waste management means the country’s land and rivers continue to be polluted with vast amounts of carelessly dumped, non degradable plastic material.

In some cases this is causing irreversible damage. For instance, official data suggests that cities along the Yangtze River, China’s longest waterway, dump at least 14.2 billion tonnes of wastewater, sewage and industrial waste into the river every year. This river, which represents 35 per cent of the country’s total fresh water resources, is now so polluted that all life it contains is at serious risk of extinction.

Social responsibility

Wider environmental implications aside, there are also other considerations EU buyers of products recycled in China need to take into account. Arguably, none more so than the issue of social responsibility. What many of us don’t realise is that China’s low cost, high volume recycling capabilities are often underpinned by poor working conditions.

As John Haddow explains: “From a social responsibility point of view, a number of factors about recycling in China give cause for concern – including the fact that despite official regulations prohibiting the employment of minors, child labour continues to be at the heart of the economic boom.”

He continues: “Strict population laws mean parents often do not register their children, making the problem even harder to regulate. Plus, Chinese police do not register children under the age of 16, meaning that all too often children can go missing without any kind of official investigation.”

Adding to the severity of the problem is the fact that to generate enough income to feed their family, parents often have no choice but to send their children out to work in local factories – including those that have sprung up to deal with the massive influx of European waste. It is not unheard of for children as young as eight to be involved in hand sorting plastic waste.

“Even schools have been found to be complicit in this exploitation of children” points out John Haddow. “In August 2006, the Chinese media reported the story of one school that had arranged for as many as 200 schoolchildren from poor areas to work 11 hour days, seven days a week at neighbouring factories during the summer holidays.

“Plus, as if employing child labour isn’t bad enough, the dire working conditions these children experience can actually cause them to develop persistent health problems. One child in particular, a girl aged 16, actually died from an untreated illness having been denied rest for three days.”

Seeing the bigger picture

With growing awareness of the environmental issues facing the planet has come increased demand for recycling and for recycled products. But it seems the practice of using low cost Far Eastern recycling capabilities and goods can have unforeseen and frequently negative consequences.

As John Haddow sums up: “It’s important that both manufacturing companies and users of 100 per cent recycled products like refuse sacks see the bigger picture. Relying on countries like China to recycle our waste and to provide us with recycled products  not only contributes to higher levels of pollution and emissions, but the lower costs involved are often indicative of substandard working conditions and child exploitation.

“One concept bpi.recycled products always advocates to its customers in order to gauge the true environmental impact of a product is that of lifecycle analysis. We also recommend looking for certain accreditations like ISO 9001, ISO14001 and ISO 18001 as they give an inherent reassurance of responsible, safe and quality conscious working practices.

He adds: “As a market leading business, bpi.recycled products subscribes to this approach - not only for the sake of our business and our customers, but also for the sake of the environment and society as a whole.”


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited