Running with the pack

Written by: Francisco Morcillo & Helen Jordan | Published:

How can the value chain be united to maximise packaging recycling? The British Plastics Federation’s head of public and industrial affairs Francisco Morcillo, and sustainability issues executive Helen Jordan, report

There is a strong anti-plastic sentiment today, driven by the highly visible and damaging effect that plastic waste is having on the environment, especially in the south east of Asia where waste management systems have not had time to catch up with the population’s rapidly increasing consumption.

A number of NGOs have voiced their concerns and are hastily coming to the conclusion that the best way to deal with the issue of plastic waste is to stop using plastics, without realising the exceptional benefits that this material brings for given applications.

For example, in the case of plastic packaging, the reduction of so-called ‘single use’ packaging could have a tremendously damaging effect on the environment, as the amount of food waste would inevitably increase, and therefore the resources used to produce this food (which are typically far higher than the resources used to produce the packaging) would be wasted.

This would result in a potential increase of the amount of CO2 used and therefore contribute to climate change. Supporting this, a recent study by Trucost estimated that the environmental cost of replacing plastics with other materials could be up to four times higher.

We have also recently seen calls for a ‘plastics-free aisle’ in supermarkets in an attempt to reduce plastic waste. However, not only would that potentially increase the overall environmental impact, but it would also do very little to encourage recycling or the use of recycled content in products. Similarly, a more divisive suggestion currently being debated is the introduction of deposit return schemes (DRS), which could potentially
boost the recycling rates of bottles, currently at 60%, but would require two parallel recycling systems, which is again environmentally costly.

Germany, often named as a clear example of a successful DRS, increased the recycling rates of bottles, but saw a reduction in the overall packaging recycling rate when it introduced a DRS, and this still has not recovered.

The plastics industry is taking a more pragmatic approach by looking at the barriers that prevent certain plastics from being captured for recycling and by working in a collaborative way to overcome these barriers without losing the environmental benefits that plastics bring.

Barriers to plastic recycling

The main behaviour barrier that is regularly reported from consumer insight work is that people are confused about what they can recycle. Recent consumer insight from Pledge 4 Plastics found the most frequently cited barrier (34%) was uncertainty about which plastics can and cannot be recycled.

Three-quarters of the people surveyed placed packaging in the residual bin if they were unsure. This confusion is partly caused by the variation in collection methods and types of material accepted. In a survey by Viridor, 69% said they would be encouraged
to recycle more if the recycling system was easier and simpler to use, with 63% frustrated that different councils collect waste in different ways.

There is also a need to motivate some people about the importance of recycling their waste. Research by Serco and Future Thinking on why people are not recycling more found 3% of people simply could not be bothered to recycle and 5% needed a financial incentive. The research also found that younger people were less likely to recycle.

Similarly, there are technical issues that can prevent certain types of plastic from being recycled. Black plastic trays have recently been highlighted as an issue in the media. These are not detectable by optical sorting systems due to their colour and therefore get rejected during the recycling process. There are already solutions available and the industry is looking at implementing them.

Economics and infrastructure can also be a barrier preventing technically recyclable material from being able to be reprocessed. For example, the recent Reflex Project showed that it is possible to sort, wash and extrude post-consumer flexible packaging. However, to develop the collection, sorting and reprocessing infrastructure, £100m would be needed – although those involved were able to prove the business case for this.

End markets are another key barrier. These end markets need to be stable and long-term to allow investment to take place. Where there is difficulty in locating end markets, such as for PET trays, it can prevent the recycling process from being viable.

PIRAP: Making a difference

What is the Plastics Industry Recycling Action Plan (PIRAP) and how can it make a difference? PIRAP was set up in June 2015 to help to meet the 57% plastic packaging recycling target by 2017. Although this target has since been lengthened to 2020, it still
poses a challenge and therefore action is needed to reach this.

PIRAP is run by the British Plastics Federation and PlasticsEurope, with the support of a great range of stakeholders including Recoup, Co-Op, Veolia, WRAP and another 46 firms from across the value chain.

PIRAP is a whole value chain approach. It recognises that end-of-life plastics are not just a reprocessor and waste management issue and therefore need support and commitment throughout the chain. All stages of the value chain should consider how their role influences the options available for the product at end of life and ensure it can be dealt with as high up the waste hierarchy as possible.

The action plan sets out specific actions for each sector of the value chain, which collectively help PIRAP to meet its aims of increasing plastic packaging recycling. The actions include:

  • Increasing the range of plastics collected at the kerbside
  • Improving engagement with consumers
  • Making improvements to the sorting infrastructure to ensure high-quality material
  • Investing in facilities to increase the range of material recycled
  • Increasing end markets
  • Designing products for end of life.

PIRAP supporters are asked to work towards the actions relevant to their sector. They do this with the knowledge that other members of the value chain are doing the same and the responsibility is not falling to only one sector.

Although PIRAP is focused on plastic packaging, it is also going to use the best practice it develops to help increase recycling in the wider plastics industry.

Overcoming barriers

During the second year of PIRAP, the focus has moved towards exploring how to overcome some of the barriers to plastic packaging recycling, many of which have been discussed. As PIRAP is able to bring together the value chain, it provides an opportunity to collectively look for ways of overcoming these barriers. PIRAP is forming working groups, incorporating all the relevant stakeholders, which will each address a specific barrier.

The first of these groups, which is looking at how to increase plastic bottle recycling, has already met. As mentioned earlier, plastic bottles are collected by 98% of councils and therefore there is an opportunity to increase the capture rate for this material. PIRAP is
also exploring providing a case study on how Wales has moved to a more consistent collection system and used targets for local authorities to help reduce consumer confusion and increase recycling.

Innovation is already taking place, with companies seeing the commercial benefit of marketing their products as made from recycled material and designing their products to be ‘green’. This means one of PIRAP’s roles is to help share best practice and use this to encourage change in other companies. It does this through a quarterly newsletter, which provides case studies as well as industry updates.

PIRAP is an opportunity to drive change within the plastic recycling industry and ensure that collective solutions are provided that are beneficial to the whole value chain. More supporters are encouraged to sign up to PIRAP and work with them to bring about change.

To find out more about PIRAP, visit

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