War on plastic or a war on waste?

Written by: Sam Reeve | Published:

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani’s War on Plastic might be critiqued for presenting a somewhat one-sided view of plastic waste in the UK and the solutions around it.

But the realities are stark and unavoidable. The sheer volume of plastic produced and consumed in the UK alone is immense. And where it ends up, whether it’s wet wipes in landfill or plastics dumped in a Malaysian rainforest, is unsustainable. The system is failing, and we need to act.

Is exporting plastic waste ever sustainable?

With images of the UK’s waste plastic piled high, littered with local authority recycling bags in Malaysian rainforest and pictures showing local communities suffering the fall-out of air pollution caused by burning waste, the knee jerk answer might be ‘no’. Certainly, it’s clear that waste exported without a guarantee of the eventual environmental outcome is unacceptable.

However, exporting is not necessarily a bad thing provided it’s controlled and we have cast iron guarantees of its destination and reprocessing outcome. And this is where there are currently flaws in the system. Closer scrutiny of the images shown on War on Plastic in Malaysia reveal the type of plastic dumped – films, bags and packaging. There are few visible plastic bottles. As the local person explains, the reprocessor took what they wanted and dumped the rest. What remains is low quality, low value plastic that has no viable market; it therefore will not get reprocessed whether it is in the UK or it is shipped elsewhere. Furthermore, data Resource Futures collated shows the majority of our plastic exports are going to China, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Vietnam. If we don’t have the necessary waste infrastructure or economic incentives to deal with this low value waste in the UK, is it likely that a developing country or emerging economy will?

At some point, we have to accept that we can’t outsource this problem. We have a moral responsibility to deal with this and ‘out of sight out of mind’ is never going to stimulate minds to find better, more innovative solutions for our waste.

The case for investment in UK waste infrastructure

Choosing not to export our plastic waste overseas, however, would place an increased strain on our waste infrastructure. The data tells us there’s already a yawning gap between the UK’s current reprocessing capacity (approx. 700,000 tonnes) and the 4.5 MT of plastic placed on the market, of which 3.7 MT becomes waste every year. We also know that 3 polymer types (LDPE, HDPE and PP) account for nearly 60% of this waste and PET, an additional 11%, which gives us insight into the reprocessing demand in the marketplace.

The policies set out in the Resources and Waste Strategy, if written into law, will create additional economic incentive. The proposed plastic tax on packaging containing less than 30% recycled content and EPR regulations will likely incentivise businesses to rethink their recycling approach as well as providing economic stability in the polymer recyclate market. A deposit return scheme changes the goal posts in the reprocessing market, stimulating a clean PET bottles stream where retaining recyclate quality is both technically and economically viable.Ensuring that all these policies complement each other is critical and is rightly the focus of lots of research and thinking both within Government and the wider sector.

This is not only an economic opportunity but a carbon opportunity. We are now committed legally to reducing UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. Using recycled polymer in the production of new plastic products has been shown to reduce carbon footprint by up to 89% (Axion Polymers), which goes some way to supporting the UK’s carbon commitments.

Tackling systemic challenges with system thinking

However, even if we are clear that investment in domestic waste processing infrastructure is critical, there remain a myriad of challenges that cannot be ignored. The problems of quality and technical reprocessing issues are the result of the complete lack of system thinking that has led us to where we are today: producers and retailers design their products and packaging for consumer appeal, not end of life.

Local authorities collect based on cost first, recycling second. Mechanical Recycling Facilities organise themselves around the value of the materials coming through the gate. Where is the joined up thinking that considers the end of life of our products from the outset and the value chain within? Design for recyclability, closed loop recycling are terms we hear bandied around but to date, the reality is dedication from a small minority of players and a lot of lip service elsewhere. More positively, the Resources and Waste strategy sets out a framework on how we start to get that systems in place to support this new way of joined up collaborative thinking and decision making.

Nonetheless, the signs are that the tide is turning. What the government decides in the next 12 months will be critical to the business case for increased waste reprocessing infrastructure in the UK. Of course, we must always focus on waste prevention especially in terms of single use plastics, but where this is not possible, let this be the beginning of a systems thinking approach where all members of this value chain work together for positive economic AND environmental outcomes through increased circularity. In doing so, hopefully, scenes such as those aired in War on Plastic will become a thing of the past.

Sam Reeve is CEO of Resource Futures

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