Events in Swindon – where the council is being forced to consider diverting household plastic packaging waste away from recycling and into energy from waste – demonstrate the fundamental requirement to have long-term, sustainable markets for our waste.
Consumer confidence in recycling, already at a low ebb, has been further exacerbated by a National Audit Office report which has been critical of the UK’s record for exporting poor-quality plastic waste.
Indeed, the 2017 Recoup data presented at its annual conference, confirms that, of the 1.044 million tonnes of UK plastic packaging declared as recycled, two-thirds was exported.
In these uncertain times there is, however, one piece of good news. The past 12 months has seen dramatic growth in demand for recycled content in plastic manufacturing, with a surge in prices for recycled post-consumer polymer.
But without the capacity to meet this increased demand, the UK is importing very significant volumes of recycled plastic, mainly from Europe.
While there is no accurate data, anecdotal evidence suggests that we may be importing more recycled PET than is being produced from UK recycling facilities. So, while there has historically been a concern that there are inadequate end markets for rigid post-consumer plastics like bottles and pots/tubs/trays, this is probably no longer the case.
The inescapable conclusion is that the UK has a golden opportunity to prioritise the development of domestic plastic sorting and recycling infrastructure. So the key question is: what type and scale of infrastructure is required?
Unfortunately, there is a data issue because, currently, there is no requirement for accredited recyclers or exporters to declare the types of plastic packaging or the polymer type they are providing evidence for. While it would not be difficult for this data to be collected by the Environment Agency within the National Packaging Waste Database, the questions are not being asked.
What we do know is that the one million tonnes of plastic packaging being recycled is almost exactly 50% household and 50% commercial & industrial waste. What is less clear is the detail of these material flows and where they go.
The reality is that, in recent years, there has been little increase in household plastic recycling capacity and the number of MRFs/plastic recovery facilities that do the work. This is largely because confidence has been undermined by competition from unregulated, low-cost, international markets that are prepared to accept material of dubious quality.
Recent events should be a game-changer for the UK to take control of the plastic recycling agenda and future-proof markets through innovation and inward investment. This could be accelerated by accurate, detailed knowledge of what types and volumes of infrastructure are required.
Roger Baynham is Chairman of the British Plastics Federation Recycling Group