Recycling industry furious as Boris Johnson says ‘plastic recycling doesn’t work’

The prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of being “in complete conflict with government policy” after saying that recycling plastic "doesn't work" and "is not the answer".

Talking to children at a Downing Street press conference for pupils, Johnson said recycling plastics "doesn't begin to address the problem" and that instead "we've all got to cut down our use of plastic".

The Recycling Association described the comments as “extraordinary” and “completely in conflict with government policy”. 

Simon Ellin, the organisation’s chief executive, told ENDS the comments were made even worse because they were “made to a group of schoolchildren who are starting off on the recycling ladder”. 

DEFRA is set to introduce Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in 2024. It will force producers to pay the full costs of disposal for the packaging they place on the market. 

Ellin said: “Negative publicity is something that blights our industry and is made even worse when the PM himself has added to it at a time when the government is asking producers to fund recycling and litter abatement by £2.7bn per year.”

“Perhaps he needs a DEFRA briefing,” he added. 

But some environmental groups have welcomed the comments.  

Sian Sutherland, co-founder of the group A Plastic Planet, said: "We have been swallowing the myth about recycling plastic for decades and it is time to wake up to the fact there are no recycling fairies. Less than 10% is actually recycled in the UK. Despite being touted by industry as a solution to the problem, all it has done is justify overproduction and created an industrial addiction to this indestructible, toxic material.”

The comments come in the same week that a report found that virgin plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030. The research, from the US group Beyond Plastics, found that as fossil-fuel companies are seeking to recoup falling profits by increasing plastics production.

Meanwhile, a separate report from Break Free From Plastic has ranked The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo as the world’s top plastic polluters for the fourth consecutive year.

Unilever made the third spot, which Break Free From Plastic said was “insulting” given that the company is the ‘principal partner’ for COP26. 

A Unilever spokesperson said: “Unilever is fully committed to keeping plastic out of the environment. We know there’s more work to do, which is why we continue to look for solutions and partnerships that will help us halve our use of virgin plastic by 2025.”

A spokesperson at The Coca-Cola Company said: “We don’t want to see any of our packaging end up where it shouldn’t, which is why we aim to collect and recycle a bottle or can — regardless of where it comes from — for every one we sell by 2030 globally. 

“Though we have much more to do, we are making steady progress against these goals.”

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