Bring Plastic Recycling Back To The UK

plastic recycling UK

Plastic is a material that pervades our lives more than almost any other; it’s found throughout our homes, in our cars, wrapped around the food that we eat and the liquids we drink. Even as you read this, you are interacting with plastic in the form of a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

Now I’m not going to go into the benefits of ridding yourself of plastic altogether because I just don’t think it’s realistic to expect this from society (or even myself if I’m brutally honest), even if it can be done.

Today I want to focus on what happens to the plastic after we have used it and how the UK economy would benefit from recycling more of our plastic here in the UK.

Where Are We Now?

According to the British Plastics Federation, of the 5 million tonnes of plastic used in the UK each year, only 24% is recovered or recycled; this is despite the fact that nearly all plastics can be recycled. In and of itself, this is a major problem that we need to tackle.

Furthermore, in this incredibly interesting TED talk, it is claimed that even when our plastic waste reaches a traditional recycling plant, only about 5% is actually turned back into plastic with much being sent to landfill or being incinerated. This is due to various factors including the difficulty some plants have in sorting the different types of plastic out. The speaker goes on to show that this needn’t be the case with the latest generation of machinery and processing technique.

Varying processing facilities across the country mean that collection procedures are different depending on where you live with both single stream and commingling in operation. While most plastic collections are open to different types and grades, it can sometimes be the case that only one type is collected such as in Jersey recently when residents were told to bin all plastic other than bottles because that is all the recycling plant could handle.

Plastic Heading Overseas

Of the plastic that is collected in the UK, some 70% of it is sent to the Far East, particularly China, for reprocessing where labour is cheap enough for the types and grades to be manually separated.

This is, in large part, due to a system of measures introduced by Defra that was meant to facilitate the expansion of reprocessing capacity in the UK. The PRN (Packaging Recovery Note) was put in place as a way to ensure the appropriate tonnage of plastic was being recycled by companies according to the targets being set.

The issue came when an initial lack of UK recycling plants and high targets forced the price per tonne of recycled plastic to uncompetitive and unsustainable levels. This was overcome by the introduction of the EPRN (Export Packaging Recovery Note) which allowed the export of material to count towards a company’s recycling target.

Without going into too many of the issues of the PRN/EPRN system (which you can read more about by downloading the BPF report), there are incentives to export rather than reprocess in the UK and this is almost certainly holding back the development of new recycling capacity in the UK.

This may now start to pose a problem as China, who process some 70% of the entire world’s plastic waste (that waste which is collected of course – far more is sent to landfill), start to refuse low grade shipments that are contaminated with other materials.

China turned away 17 containers from the UK in 2012 and while this amounted to just 420 tonnes of plastic waste, the fact that China wants to ban the import of any unwashed plastics or those that are contaminated are of great concern to some. I see it as an opportunity as you’ll discover shortly.

Where Could We Be?

Despite the fact that the amount of waste generated per person is at its lowest level for 20 years, we still produce our fair share and if exporting our plastic isn’t going to be an option going forward, what can we do with it?

One option is to incinerate it but this poses its own problems and, in my opinion, can only ever be a small part of a sustainable solution (for waste which can’t be recycled – not plastic!).

The better option is to encourage the recycling and reprocessing industry in the UK which would lead to a number of benefits.

While not focussing specifically on plastic, a report by Friends of the Earth concluded that if the UK were to increase household recycling levels to 70% then an additional 51,400 jobs could be created. If you include commercial and industrial waste too then an additional 18,800 jobs would be created.

These figures weren’t just plucked out of thin air either, they were based on a number of previous studies which all found that recycling waste generated far more jobs than either incineration of landfill.

Not only would more jobs be created but millions (or potentially billions) of pounds in financial benefits would be pumped into the UK economy. In 2003, two studies in California concluded that recycling benefits the economy twice as much as waste disposal. The figures for this single state (population roughly 38 million) are quite stunning with 85,000 jobs in the recycling industry which accounts for some $4 billion in taxable income and $5 billion in taxable sales. It should be noted that this is just one study which may or may not represent expected outcomes elsewhere.

The other obvious benefits include not having to bury tonne after tonne of plastic waste in the ground where it will continue to sit for millennia to come, and not having to have anybody live next to incineration plants which emit pollution into the air.

What Needs To Be Done?

Taxes – one way to encourage the transition away from landfill and incineration and towards plastic recycling is to levy greater taxes on the former so that it becomes financially preferable to recycle. This has been shown to be highly effective in other European countries.

Bans – a more extreme approach would be to ban the disposal of certain plastics in any way other than recycling. This would/could be effective in some instances where the plastic are easily recoverable (bottles for example) but I fear it would be difficult to properly enforce.

Pay-as-you-throwI have talked about this before and I believe it could be very effective because people respond to things that directly affect them, especially those that impact their wallet.

Disincentivise export and incentivise UK reprocessing – we need to follow the advice of the British Plastics Federation and rebalance the PRN/EPRN system so that it is more cost-effective to process the plastic collected here in the UK rather than shipping it off to China and other parts of the world.

Responsible production – while consumers can, in some instances, buy goods made of recycled plastic, it is far from widespread so, whether as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts or through government legislation, manufacturers and retailers need to increase the number of recycled plastic products on sale. This particularly goes for packaging which we tend to go through at an alarming rate.

If more recycled plastic was available from UK plants then it might make it easier for producers to utilise it in their products and packaging.

Buying UK Recycled Products

There are some companies that are already doing their bit to bring products to the market that are made from recycled plastic, some of which is sourced directly from UK recycling plants.

One of the biggest markets for recycled plastic products is for landscaping which includes everything from walkways, decking and benches to fencing and playgrounds. To boost demand for British manufactured products like this, we should request that our local governments use them wherever possible while considering them for our own gardens too (a balance with reclaimed timber should be found).

But there are ways to bring recycled plastic products into your own homes and the eco cleaning arena is one of the easiest ways:

  • EcoForce produce a number of products from recycled plastic (along with other materials) and they manufacture here in the UK. I really like their clever washing up brush design where the head is detachable and replaceable which generates less waste.
  • Ecover, the well known producer of cleaning products, already have bottles combining their plant-astic sugarcane plastic and recycled plastic and now want to incorporate plastic recovered from our oceans and seas as part of their “Message in our Bottle” project. They hope to begin production in 2014 and fingers crossed it will be manufactured in the UK. Plastic floating in the North Sea has been earmarked for initial production.

Staying in the home, Invicta Group has just announced that they have successfully created the world’s first 100% recycled cup along with plates and other tableware. The cup is being trialled by Coca-Cola. While they are manufactured in the UK, I haven’t been able to verify whether the plastic is from here too.

What we need is more companies willing to replace their virgin plastics with recycled plastics because the higher the demand for recycled plastics, the greater the incentive to expand capacity in existing plants or build new plants.

I’ll leave you with this question – if China does start rejecting our recycling and we can’t find another home for it, are we just going to dump or burn it? Can we really regress like that or is this an opportunity to bring plastic recycling to the forefront here in the UK?

Steve (156 Posts)

I am chief writer and editor on Green Steve. Blogging since 2011, I like to delve into a wide number of topics to help people reduce their carbon footprint. You should follow me on Twitter here. And add me to your Google+ circles here.

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