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Energy Crisis – Help or Hindrance to Zero Waste?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine revealed the UK and Europe’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels. In 2020, imports from Russia made up 39% of the gas used in the EU, 23% of oil imports and 46% of coal imports. Russian imports to the UK were worth £4.5 billion.

As well as the moral imperative to stop buying fossil fuels from Russia, the invasion of Ukraine highlighted the economic risk of relying on such fuels. Prices rose sharply in response to the invasion, contributing to the cost of living crisis. And given 99% of plastic is made from chemicals sourced from fossil fuels, the rising cost of energy leads, inevitably, to a higher cost of plastic production.


The Effect on Plastic Recycling

The cost of fossil fuels has also exposed another weakness of plastic recycling. This has been hailed as a major solution to plastic waste, but of the seven main types of plastics, five hardly ever get recycled because the process is too expensive and complicated, and even the remaining two result in a lower quality product than cheaper new plastics.


Plastic recycling is therefore fundamentally flawed, but the problem has worsened recently due to the amount of energy recycling needs – rising energy prices have contributed to a dramatic fall in the value of recycled plastic. Mixed plastic bottles, for example, have plummeted from £300 to £25 per tonne in the past few months. Plastic recycling plants are contracting or shutting across Europe.


It is now considerably more expensive to manufacture plastic and to recycle it, so this would seem to be a great time to reduce our plastic use, especially single-use plastics – it would save money as well as help the environment.


Short Term Priorities

But sadly, at the moment this does not seem to be a priority. Many countries have focused on buying fossil fuels from elsewhere rather than lessening their use. And while the EU is trying to reduce natural gas demand, plastic production was not mentioned as a way to do so.


Indeed, it is seen as inevitable that plastic production will continue to expand in the UK. The Net Zero review stated that ‘petrochemical products [including plastics] are ubiquitous and integral to modern societies … demand for oil and gas will remain.’ And consumers, given the cost of living pressures, are less concerned about reducing waste than a year ago.


Indeed, there are worrying signs that far from contracting, the fossil fuel industry is actually trying to expand. 636 fossil fuel lobbyists registered to attend COP27 , an increase of over 25% from COP26. Banks and investors continue to pump billions into fossil fuels, even those who have signed up to Net Zero pledges.


What to Do?

We need to highlight to governments, and to plastic producers, that the time is right to shift away from using expensive and unreliable fossil fuels to create a material that is almost immediately thrown away, and that recycling plastics is not the answer.


As individuals we can reduce plastic consumption ourselves by avoiding disposable cups and cutlery, buying plastic-free where possible, and more. We need to keep the pressure on those in charge to do the same, and make it a national priority: Reduce Reuse Refill are the new Three R’s.


Change from the top is possible – the EU has been taking the lead on legislation to cut plastic pollution for some time but the UK is lagging behind. We all have a responsibility to push for this change. So use social media, call out retailers using single-use plastics and choose reusable or refillable products, contact your MP – we can make a difference!


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For more information contact: info@scarabtrust.org.uk



Charts:

Oil Price - source: Macrotrends

Consumer attitudes - source: Kantar survey of 100,000 consumers


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