Solving the UK's plastic problem

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
2014 the EU generated 15.4 million tonnes of plastic packaging

The UK has a problem when it comes to plastic, thanks to China’s tougher stance on importing it, the high cost of processing it and growing concern around issues such as marine litter.

Last year was a defining one for the industry as it prepared for greater clarity on post-Brexit waste policy while bracing itself for the impact of Chinese restrictions on imported secondary materials, most notably plastics and paper.

For the UK, so heavily reliant on the Asian market for its waste exports, it’s a worrying time. Recent research by Greenpeace suggests that nearly two-thirds of our plastic scrap goes to China and Hong Kong, although industry experts estimate the figure to be nearer 55%.

“We will have our work cut out for us to address it,” says Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance. “The UK doesn’t have the infrastructure to recycle the material, particularly mixed papers and plastics, and doesn’t have the collection systems in place to produce higher-quality material in many instances.”

In the immediate term, China is looking to tighten its quality requirements, which means UK recyclers still have an export outlet if they can meet the more stringent specifications.

“No matter what quality requirements they put in place, it’s possible to achieve it – but at a cost,” says Jacob Hayler, executive director at the Environmental Services Association. “The question then is, what sort of disruption does that cause, and who will ultimately have to pay for that? That becomes a tricky discussion.”

But there is the potential also for Asian markets to become quickly saturated. “What we don’t yet know is the quantity of material that the Chinese will allow in,” Hayler says. “If China does not allow as many import licences and a lot less of this material is allowed into China, then it becomes a question of how much material other markets can absorb.”

A global issue

And, of course, it’s not just the UK that will be affected. According to Zero Waste Europe (ZWE), in 2014 the EU generated 15.4 million tonnes of plastic packaging, 40% of which was separated for recycling. Of this, around three million tonnes (45%) was exported, with the majority ending up in China.

“Europe doesn’t have the capacity today to absorb the extra three million tonnes for recycling, and this means there are several dangers,” says Joan Marc Simon, director at ZWE.

On a practical level, he warns that more plastic waste could end up in European incinerators and cement kilns, while on a policy level it might scupper ambitions for future EU recycling targets and the forthcoming plastics strategy. “The new target of 55% recycling for plastic packaging was taking into account export of more than 40% of plastic waste for recycling,” he points out.

Simon adds: “From a global perspective this law is already having an impact on schemes of separate collection. In the US, for instance, where almost all plastic packaging on the west coast is collected and shipped to China, there have been many case of municipalities discontinuing the collection of plastic packaging because it is cheaper to landfill it than to recycle it.”

In the longer term, if China does want to become truly self-sufficient in harvesting its own resources, Hayler warns this will pose a serious structural issue. “You have to ask, is there a disconnect between the long-term weight-based recycling policy and availability of end markets? There’s no point collecting all of this stuff if there’s nowhere we can send it to. Are we better off thinking about smarter ways of doing things under a carbon-based approach?”

He adds: “The scenario we need to avoid is where we’re not able to shift this material – you can’t stockpile it, it would have to be landfilled, and that would be a PR disaster.”

Is taxing single-use plastics the answer?

The issue of plastics – particularly ocean plastics – was hardly out of the headlines last year. In December, more than 200 countries signed a UN resolution committing to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea, a move that could pave the way to a legally binding treaty.

While there is a general industry view that the UK only contributes a tiny fraction (around 0.2%) of global ocean plastics, ministers are now considering introducing a tax on single-use plastics and a greater push on producer responsibility through deposit return schemes.

But is this the right approach? “Every mooted intervention – whether a tax, a charge, or a mechanism to shift funds towards hotspots – needs to be analysed carefully with desired objectives at the heart of decisions,” says Paul Vanston, chief executive of INCPEN.

“Asking whether a deposit return system is right or wrong is the wrong question to ask because context is so important. The starting point is ‘what are we seeking to achieve as a country?’, and then of all the options available, which one or blend of options will get us to our desired objectives in the most efficient and cost-effective way for consumers and businesses?”

For some, this may mean that the best route forward is to consolidate and enhance existing solutions – such as kerbside collection schemes and possible reform of the packaging recovery note (PRN) system – rather than create a competing parallel system such as a DRS.

“It’s encouraging to see interest in improving packaging recycling rates through bottle deposits, but this will only address part of the problem,” adds Peake. “While the PRN system has allowed the UK to meet EU legal obligations at minimal cost, the system’s shortcomings are numerous.”

She says one such shortcoming of the system is its bias toward export over domestic infrastructure, with PRNs issued at the point of reprocessing but packaging export recovery notes (PERNs) issued at the point of export.

“It is, in part, this shortcoming that has allowed the UK to institute inconsistent collections that result in low-quality material that can then be exported and counted as recycled, resulting in the current crisis with China.”

Hayler hopes Defra’s resources and waste strategy, due out later this year, will contain a stronger focus on producer responsibility to address the plastics issue.

“What would be great is if we could link PRN reform to some of these measures around rationalising these polymers – if we could have differentiated fees, for example, that incentivise producers to do the right thing.”

Does a new era of innovation beckon?

On a positive note, the Government’s Clean Growth Strategy may lead to further announcements this year on innovation funding for the sector. The Environmental Services Association’s Hayler says any government support for pilot projects looking at future technologies could “lead to big long-term changes” that might help shape a post-2030 vision for resource optimisation.

One example could be chemical recycling – the depolymerisation of mixed plastics to reconstitute these materials back into new polymers, which would help create closed-loop solutions. Another is the recovery of critical raw materials (CRMs) from newer products being placed on the market, such as lithium-ion batteries found in electric vehicles.

According to Nick Cliffe, innovation lead at Innovate UK, the recovery of these batteries poses a significant challenge and could benefit from innovation funding.

“A modern li-ion EV battery pack is not compatible with current end-of-life vehicle processing facilities. There are significant handling and processing challenges, controlled storage and transport issues and a lack of infrastructure to process them and recover the valuable materials they contain,” he says.

Given the potentially high value of recovered materials from these batteries such as copper, aluminium, lithium and cobalt, investment in new recycling processes might seem attractive, but this will need to be balanced against current virgin availability, which may well increase over the next 10 years.

“The importance of second-life applications will be important here,” Cliffe says. “Batteries that are no longer okay for automotive use will see most value retained in second-life applications, possibly via remanufacturing, before recycling to recover constituent materials.”


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