Finding the truth behind recycling report data

Written by: Tom Freyberg | Published:
Image: Alamy stock photo

August is usually considered a slow month for mainstream media.

Despite the heatwave picking up its fair share of column inches, this year the crosshairs of some of the national newspapers were firmly fixed on plastic packaging.

The Daily Mail ran a story with the front-page headline: “What a recycling shambles!” Even the i newspaper flagged up a major story with the line: “Only third of plastic packs can be recycled.”

The coverage followed the Local Government Association (LGA)’s call for manufacturers to scrap what it labelled the “smorgasboard” of plastics used in food packaging so that “councils can reduce waste sent to landfill and increase recycling”.

Using data from recycling group RECOUP, the LGA said 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, tubs and trays are used by households every year, but only 169,145 tonnes are able to be recycled.

However, RWW has since learned that there was a “misrepresentation” of this data. The figures – taken from the RECOUP UK Household Plastics Collection Survey 2017 – should have read that 169,145 tonnes are collected for recycling, rather than are able to be recycled.

“Polymer madness”

Five types of packaging were highlighted by the LGA under the title “polymer madness”, including: margarine and ice-cream tubs; microwave meal and meat packaging; fruit and vegetable punnets; yoghurt pots and bakery goods trays.

Inevitably, councils were defended in the announcement – “councils have done all they can to tackle this issue, with 99% of councils collecting plastic bottles for recycling and 77% collecting pots, tubs and trays”.

Much of the blame was put on manufacturers, with the association often citing the variety of polymers used, which render it as “unrecyclable packaging”.

“We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable material to develop a plan to stop this from entering the environment for years,” said Leeds councillor Judith Blake. “That needs to happen urgently, but the government should now consider banning low-grade plastics, particularly those for single use, in order to increase recycling.”

Interestingly, polypropylene was mentioned under the “packages that use unrecyclable plastic” heading, with the LGA saying it is “extremely difficult to recycle”.

Stuart Foster, CEO of RECOUP, responded by saying: “Comments suggesting that polypropylene packaging is ‘extremely difficult’ to recycle are inherently wrong, and in fact the complete opposite applies, as it represents the highest-value element of the plastic pots and trays to waste management companies, with UK sorting facilities and reprocessors in place to provide good auditable markets and recycle that material.”

Eagle-like focus

In the wake of the report, Paul Vanston, CEO of packaging industry organisation INCPEN, met the LGA in August. This followed one-to-one discussions with the LGA in February; the LGA also attended the WRAP-INCPEN-ACP packaging reforms workshop for local government in March, and the subsequent summit in April.

Speaking to RWW, Vanston says: “The policy reform crescendo we’re so keen to see led by Defra could end up being much less than we all need it to be if the various sectors that comprise our value chain continue to argue with each other, especially in public.

“For my part, I refuse to ‘drop bombs’ on partner sectors. Instead, we need to focus eagle-like on the valuable prize that’s before us. Namely that the next six months of intensive, collaborative effort could set the legislative, financial and operational landscape for the next two decades.”

He previously said that the ‘smorgasbord’ referred to by the LGA exists in several parts of how the value chain operates. This includes councils’ packaging recycling collections.

“Citizens, governments and the value chain see an array of differing recycling collections that the 300-plus councils offer, even when they are next door to each other, and especially in England,” he adds.

“Personally, I think there is greater consistency of packaging recycling collections across councils than many think, especially in terms of packaging formats that are recycled.”

The CEO remains optimistic about industry collaboration and says one way to “unlock the doors currently holding consistency back” would be the LGA using its seat on the UK Plastics Pact Steering Group, which pledges 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Vanston adds: “If collection consistency, and unambiguous consumer labelling, can happen simultaneously by around 2023, that’s a goal worth aiming for and allows five years to get it done.”

Scheme simplification

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) has warned that banning some plastics could increase the environmental burden of packaging.

“While the volume of plastics packaging that is recycled, including pots, tubs and trays, continues to increase year-on-year, more can clearly be done,” says Stephen Hunt, membership services director at the BPF.

“The LGA itself has a key role to play here and we have long been calling for standardised collection schemes. There are currently over 300 different collection schemes in place across the UK and it is no surprise that there is confusion among the public when it comes to recycling.”

Meanwhile, other industry experts showed support for the LGA’s pressure on manufacturers.

“It’s vital that manufacturers of this hard-to-recycle packaging are incentivised, through a variety of mechanisms, to reconsider the designs, materials and constructions they use,” says David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SUEZ recycling and recovery.

"We want to create an economic system where it is in producers’ interests to harvest the materials in their products, once discarded by their customers, so they can be made into new things."

Meanwhile, Peter Maddox, director of WRAP UK, says the public’s confidence in recycling should be maintained.

“Most of the plastic packaging we use is recyclable,” he says. “More than three-quarters of councils collect pots, tubs and trays, and as a nation we are recycling more than ever. Success depends on businesses, governments and local authorities working together to transform the plastics system in the UK.”

Black trays bounce back

Often the subject of much finger-pointing and blame, black plastic trays picked up some heat from the LGA.

“In one example of particularly inefficient packaging, microwave meals are often encased in predominately black plastic material for aesthetic reasons…black is the only colour that cannot be easily scanned by recycling machines and sorted, meaning this unnecessarily hinders the recycling process,” it said.

Historically, existing optical sorting systems could not sort the ready-meal trays as their carbon pigment reflected little or no light. Although recent developments have been made in this area, they were omitted in the LGA’s findings.

Only two months ago, waste management company Viridor launched a scheme with three UK supermarkets to use recycled black plastics in new ‘good grade’ packaging. The collaboration involves M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, food packaging manufacturer Faerch Plast and waste management firm Viridor, which said it had “come up with a process to add black plastics to the coloured stream already recycled”.

Since July, an estimated 120 tonnes of black plastic (eight million items) is being recycled each month at two facilities in Rochester and Skelmersdale in Lancashire.

Although not involved in the Viridor project, supermarket Waitrose has taken the lead and announced that it will be phasing out all “own-label black plastic packaging – which is difficult to recycle – by 2019”. It has already removed 65% of black plastic from its fruit and vegetable packaging.

It is estimated that every year, approximately 1.3 billion black crystallised polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) trays are used in ready-meal packaging.

Although the Viridor project has been one of the first to successfully bring together the entire supply chain to make black-tray recycling work, efforts have been under way since 2012 and WRAP conducted an “in-market trial to prove recycling process for black CPET trays” in 2013.

It has since recommended that detectable colourants be used in the manufacture of black packaging, such as in amorphous polyethylene terephthalate (APET), crystallised polyethylene terephthalate (CPET), polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) packaging.

Other difficult-to-recycle materials raised in these discussions include thin films, often used on the top of microwave foods.

Dr Dominic Hogg, chairman of consultancy Eunomia, told the BBC: “This is a combination of different polymers, which are bound together and we can’t really get apart.

Those are not going to get recycled. We’d actually have to use more material to have the same functionality, so some of the producers will argue it is environmentally worse to use more material than to make that material easier to recycle.”

Phasing out

The LGA findings clearly ruffled a few industry feathers, especially by making front page, national media news. The interpretation and publication of data can make the difference in a story, as has been the case here.

For example, there is a big difference between saying that two-thirds of plastic pots and trays are unrecyclable and saying only one third of plastic packaging is collected for recycling.

Despite this, much work remains to align multiple bodies so that consumers don’t lose respect for each part of the supply chain: from packaging to protect and deliver food fresh to their tables, to local authorities for collecting and sorting waste and recyclables.

Tom Freyberg is founder and director of Atlantean Media

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