Plastics recycling requires bigger and faster thinking

Written by: Stuart Foster | Published:

There is real potential for improvements and evolution in all parts of the plastic recycling chain, but leadership and actions, including around government, producer and consumer responsibilities, as well as addressing materials quality and the effectiveness of messaging, are now becoming critical, explains Stuart Foster, CEO of RECOUP

The level of interest and growing understanding of resource efficiency and the role of packaging recycling in the circular economy should leave us in no doubt that there will be improvements in the recycling of plastics packaging. It is the scale and speed at which it is achieved that is unclear.

The UK and many others across Europe have been comfortably ahead of the outdated EU plastic packaging recycling targets for some time now. It is also unclear how any Circular Economy Package from Europe will now influence the UK in future years.

The existing UK recycling target for plastics packaging has been extended out to 2020, requiring around 1.1 million tonnes of plastic packaging to be recycled by that time, which is expected to achieve a 48% recycling rate.

What this doesn’t account for is the recent flatlining and even reversing of overall recycling figures, in England at least, which is amplifying the debate around extended producer responsibility.

More radical approaches to plastic producer responsibility will be needed alongside innovation, and a serious rethink of where current producer fees and support are focused. Government and consumer responsibility also need to be given the same scrutiny as producer responsibility to allow ambitious legislation and strategies to provide the right conditions to achieve plastic resource and recycling goals.

Ongoing government-led work continues to review the opportunities, including work on improving consistency – of collection systems, consumer engagement, and packaging. Plastic is a key material in this activity and there is room for improvement.

There is ongoing concern over the quality of plastic supplied to reprocessors and the added considerations of higher targets and exceptional market conditions. At the same time, there is a need for more collection to satisfy and stimulate end market demand (and targets), questions over the current market opportunities for non-bottle rigid and household film plastics, and the need to influence positive recycling behaviour change in consumers and improve consistency of recycling messages.

Research into the more challenging plastic fractions has continued, with recycling and recovery solutions closer than ever.

There is a continued requirement for a range of recycling options for plastics including food-grade applications, sheets, fibre, piping, strapping, benches and even energy from waste or second-life processing into fuels for the plastics that we cannot recycle using traditional methods.

The general direction is clear: better resource efficiency and conservation through the development of a green economy. Some have concluded that plastic is an ideal material to demonstrate that it is possible and profitable to move towards a circular economy model with recycling as a key element. It is now up to stakeholders to prove it and deliver on a practical level.

UK plastic packaging recycled in 2016. Estimated 50% of all UK plastic packaging recycled each year is from household sources (NPWD Data)

Of 391 UK local authorities,
385 (98%) offer a kerbside recycling collection service that includes plastic bottles
290 (74%) collect pots, tubs and trays
80 (20%) collect plastic film
(RECOUP Data - 2016 Recoup UK Household Plastics Collection Survey)

Household plastics packaging collection rates:

45% rigid plastics packaging overall, including:

57% of plastic bottles

30% of pots, tubs and trays
(RECOUP Data - 2016 Recoup UK Household Plastics Collection Survey)

£21m plastic packaging producer responsibility income in 2016
£99m in total between 2013 and 2016 (NPWD Data)

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