A new era for plastics recycling

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
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This stuff needs to be out in the consumer market - everyone is living by everything Hugh FW is ...

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Viridor’s owner, Pennon, recently published its full year results.

In the 58-page document is the following line: “The government’s Resources & Waste Strategy has confirmed the fundamentals of the waste market and provides a foundation for stimulus to recycling.” It is a sentence that – perhaps – defines a new era for the resource sector. One of security rather than instability.

“Over the past few years there have been a number of tragic failures in the market where facilities have failed as manufacturers switch to virgin plastics when the oil price drops,” explains Sarahjane Widdowson at consultants Ricardo.

The former Closed Loop recycling facility is the obvious case in point: just 0.1p on the price of a two-pint plastic milk bottle could reportedly have secured the future of the company; but the government didn’t step in, the voluntary agreements at the time held little sway and manufacturers valued profit over sourcing UK material and, as we know now, environmental protection.

2019 presents a very different landscape. In February, Biffa received planning approval for a £15m plastics recycling plant near Seaham, in County Durham, where it will process 3m bottles a day into new food and drink packaging (creating 70 new full-time jobs).

Veolia has just announced a further £1m investment in its Dagenham plastics recycling facility to meet rising demand for food-grade recycled plastics. Viridor, meanwhile, has committed to a ground-breaking £65m plastics recycling facility near Bristol: within three years this will be taking in 1.7 billion bottles, pots, tubs and trays and turning them into 63,000 tonnes of recycled material.

“The challenge has been about predicting the market and making sure it’s the right time,” says Widdowson. The time is right now, it seems, with the government strategy having provided the backdrop for investment in infrastructure to deliver higher collection rates, better quality outputs and dramatic increases in the use of recycled content in plastic packaging.

The tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content is key, but will also be complemented by reformed packaging producer responsibility regulations. A deposit return scheme will also ensure a clean stream of materials fit for high quality outputs, whilst a streamlined kerbside collection system should help shift the focus to fewer, easily recycled polymers.

There are also voluntary targets, under the UK Plastics Pact, to ensure that 100% of plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable and 70% of it is effectively recycled or composted by 2025. By then, industry should also have hit 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging. There are new EU targets that will likely need to be met, too.

It isn’t only politicians and new polices that have boosted confidence: 80% of the public is now worried about plastic in the oceans, with 60% ‘more likely’ to buy products with packaging made from recycled materials, Pennon also noted, thanks in no small part to the BBC series hosted by David Attenborough in late 2017.

Ever since that day in December, consumer goods brands have been falling over themselves to remove unnecessary plastic and increase the recyclability and recycled content of what’s left. The whole chain is under “immense pressure” to act “very quickly”, Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium told me recently.

What a difference a David makes. He can’t take all the credit, though: the quality restrictions on exports to China were also a trigger for optimising MRFs. The revelations in a new BBC Series, War on Waste, will see pressure on the whole chain intensify further.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the show’s co-host, visited Malaysia – where a fair chunk of the UK’s plastic waste is now ending up – and the picture was not pretty. “Absolutely horrible,” is how the chef-turned-campaigner put it. Of course, one way to ensure problem plastics aren’t just dumped somewhere else is to have more reprocessing capacity here. But despite the considerable investment of late, it is early days.

Currently, UK reprocessing capacity for plastic packaging is estimated to be over 400,000 tonnes, predominantly focused on PET and HDPE bottles. According to the National Packaging Waste Database, around 60% of plastic packaging waste in the first quarter of this year was exported for reprocessing with the rest recycled domestically. In the same period last year, the figures were 66% and 34% respectively. The tide is turning.

And let’s not forget: at present there is no regulatory incentive for the use of recycled plastic versus virgin polymer – the tax and all the other new policies are ‘under consultation’ (as well as a cloud of political chaos).

“UK derived secondary plastics are going to UK based reprocessing wherever possible, but the market is saturated and trading further afield has been the norm in the sector for over 10 years,” explains Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez. Changes are happening, though, he adds. Widdowson agrees: “We’ve got a long way to go before we start to replace some of the imports with our ‘home grown’ output but it is increasing.”

Capturing more of what’s here would certainly help. There were approximately 70,000 tonnes of dense plastic packaging (bottles, pots, tubs and trays) thrown away by households in Scotland that could have been recycled, according to Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS) research. That included 15,000 tonnes of PET plastics drinks bottles, which could be worth between £375,000 and £1.95 million if they were recycled instead.

This is where a DRS could bear fruit: if brands can control their supply chain so they’re only getting their own product back, the quality of the feedstock will increase. This protection of resources is certainly a trend to watch, as brands look to close the loop on their materials, avoid the tax and meet pretty stiff targets set out in the Plastics Pact for recycled content.

Food brands will find it particularly tough given strict (but necessary) EU rules on food contact materials. Take polypropylene – which is “the easiest plastic to recycle [but] cannot currently be recycled back to food grade”, according to ZWS.

Films will also be problematic; much rests on the Ceflex initiative, which has been working away quietly to design circular economy roadmap for flexible packaging. Resource recovery firm Axion says it will take £100m to “enable PE and PP film recycling from kerbside collections”.

A couple of years ago, such a figure might have seemed folly. But times have changed. Tesco is already collecting hard to recycle plastics (for chemical recycling), whilst Sainsbury’s has introduced ‘precycling’, with shoppers taking off packaging in the store for recycling. These are a way off closed loop systems but the trend is clear: strategic access to recycled feedstock will be increasingly important to brands that not so long ago were happy to flip flop between virgin and recycled to save money.

In fact, there have been formal “marriages” between different players in the supply chain to shore up supply. Ingka Group, which owns Ikea, has invested in Umincorp, a Dutch firm that uses “ferromagnetic fluid and engineered magnets to recover post-consumer mixed plastics at higher yields and polymer purities than existing sorting technologies”. Coca-Cola, meanwhile, has extended a loan to Ioniqa, also based in the Netherlands, which is developing technology to produce high-grade rPET from hard-to-recycle PET waste.

Susan Hansen, a food supply chain strategist at Rabobank, has been tracking how businesses in Europe are adapting to the plastic challenge. She is predicting a “flip” in the market, in which demand begins to outstrip supply. In some cases this already happening.

Klöckner Pentaplast told me recently that it can’t get hold of enough rPET and at the same time retailers and brands have made bold commitment to increase their use of rPET. “I do think we’ll see more of these marriages,” Hansen says. That will be music to the ears of many in the recycling sector.

Developing domestic plastics reprocessing capacity is an essential part of the circular economy – join key members of the supply chain to find solutions and access the opportunities of the infrastructure challenge at the UK Plastics Reprocessing event in London on 13 November.

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I take your point, Heidi. Three further ones though: 1) the interest/investment in reduction of packaging (and I mean all types) amongst the food brands is limited (we are talking big changes to the food system and choices); 2) the likes of Ineos are also preparing for huge growth in production (as per the HFW series) and the link between plastic, whether it's recycled or not, and other packaging, again whether it's recycled or not, and climate change/environmental degradation/resource use needs to be front and centre; 3) the investment in recycling infrastructure is, it seems, just loose change compared to the amount some of the big waste contractors are ploughing into EfW

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This stuff needs to be out in the consumer market - everyone is living by everything Hugh FW is saying, without understanding what is going on in the background to fix it, and also that people have a responsibility to deal with their own waste!

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