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Between a rock and a hard plastic

Despite the growth in plastics recycling capabilities, for construction and demolition waste recyclers, rigid plastics that are generated have few alternatives other than landfill.

Construction and demolition waste is, by its very nature, a mixed bag of materials. However, waste management companies have become well practised in segregating waste and ensuring that, where possible, materials are reused or recycled. O’Donovan Waste Disposal, for example, recycles an average of 97% of the waste it collects each month.

In the case of hard plastics though, this is not always a straightforward task, as recycling options are limited.

Considering that the UK produces an average of 1.5m tonnes of rigid plastics each year, it’s clear this is a big issue that needs tackling. In the current climate, it is difficult to find a specialist willing to accept plastic as there is very little value in recycling it. The recent news that oil prices have yet again fallen may be welcome by most, as it inevitably reduces transport costs, but the reaction will surely not be so warm from those working in recycled plastics.

The fact that oil, which is used in the production of plastic, is now cheaper means that virgin polymers, or new plastic products, will be just as cheap, if not cheaper and easier to produce. This of course has the knock-on effect of diminishing any business case for investing in plastics recycling.

In construction and demolition, we have invested heavily in ensuring that we can recycle as much of the waste produced from building sites as possible. We have done this by tailoring our methods of working, our technical systems and our strategies so we can make the most of the waste streams produced. We need to encourage the plastics industry to do the same.

We’ve also become adept at designing for deconstruction. This has become second nature when it comes to materials such as wood, metal and glass but not so when it comes to hard plastics. Building planners and designers need to be encouraged to invest in a genuine plastic that has a higher recyclable content or, alternatively, is made from as few types of plastic as possible, to make it easier for the waste companies that receive the material at the end of its life to divert it from landfill.

This should be an integral part of companies’ corporate social responsibility strategies. Failing that, there needs to be a government-backed financial incentive for everyone involved.

More research and development needs to be done to give waste handlers options when it comes to where to send residual or used hard plastics. If there are options, this creates a commercial opportunity and that will only increase recycling rates. Those that handle hard plastics are crying out for a place, other than landfill, to send the plastics to. If we are to reach a true circular economy then hard plastic needs to be considered more seriously and the plastics industry needs to lead on this. 

Jacqueline O’Donovan is the managing director of O’Donovan Waste Disposal.

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