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Dearth of plastics infrastructure

Recycling in the plastics sector is at the cutting edge of the industry. The Government is targeting it for investment in research, infrastructure and pilot technologies to find out how best to deal with this complex waste stream.

So far, 2010 has been the year for plastics recycling; in February, the Waste & Resources Action Programme announced that funding of up to £2 million had been awarded to Greenstar WES to build and test a mixed plastics recycling facility which will take 20,000 tonnes of non-bottle plastic household waste, such as yoghurt pots and margarine tubs.

And Zero Waste Scotland put £5 million forward in March this year to develop plastics recycling infrastructure in the country, with a focus on plastics packaging and bottles from the household waste stream. Many local authorities have started trialling rigid plastics collections too – an indication of the enthusiasm in increasing plastics recycling across the country.

the Government’s consultation on packaging recycling targets has been described by many in the sector as “ambitious” and unachievable

Driving this focus on plastics has been increased recycling targets and the desire to recover more from the waste stream. According to 2008 figures, the UK’s plastics packaging recycling rate is 23.7%. Recent proposals that to increase plastics packaging recycling to 56.9% by 2020 in the Government’s consultation on packaging recycling targets has been described by many in the sector as “ambitious” and unachievable.

Plastics 2020 - the UK plastics industry and Government organisation set up to help double the rate of plastic packaging recycled to 50% by 2020 - says it is not going to sign up to the proposed 57% target. It believes this would mean an extra 1.4 million tonnes of plastic will have to be collected, which would be unachievable. The organisation is led by industry bodies the British Plastics Federation (BFP), the Packaging and Films Association and Plastics Europe.

Plastics Europe UK regional director for the north Jan-Erik Johansson says: “Doubling recycling is a very ambitious but do-able target, although it has not been unchallenged by industry. However, we are so far away from 48%, 50% or 57% that we are unsure exactly what we can do. You might think 57% is only 7% more than 50% but when you start, the first 2% is easy but as you go on it will be more and more difficult. Taking it to 50% would take out all the low hanging fruit but another 7% is just too much.”

The reason for this resistance to the proposed packaging targets lies in the much discussed issue of materials quality

The reason for this resistance to the proposed packaging targets lies in the much discussed issue of materials quality. There is concern that with pressure for local authorities to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill and for the UK to meet packaging recycling targets, large tonnages of mixed plastics will be collected, which have a lower value. This concern is fuelled further because there is little infrastructure in the UK to sort bottles and mixed household plastics and even fewer facilities that can sort these into polymer types.

Linpac Packaging plastics recycling purchasing manager Bernard Chase says: “Materials recycling facilities try to take in as much material as they possibly can, so the temptation is to push material through the MRFs as quickly as they can, as long as they have a back end market. [Materials] are pushed through too quickly and so, are too poorly sorted. MRFs were built and designed to handle just bottles and suddenly they are getting everything thrown at them. New MRFs can handle it but they’re not coming on-stream quickly enough.”

“Despite calls for the need to improve bale quality from the major players in the reprocessing sector, overall collection and sorted quality of recovered plastics packaging is reported as poor and deteriorating.” Recoup

A recent position statement from plastics organisation Recoup states: “Despite calls for the need to improve bale quality from the major players in the reprocessing sector, overall collection and sorted quality of recovered plastics packaging is reported as poor and deteriorating.”

Furthermore, the British Plastics Federation (BPF) found in a recent survey of recyclers which purchase bottles for reprocessing, that they discover up to 40% contamination in their bales, mainly non-bottle plastics, or material that is not plastic at all (12%).

Recoup believes that the damage collecting some extra streams of household plastics could pose to the existing plastic recycling infrastructure is so great that household flexible plastic, such as film “should not, under any circumstances, be collected for recycling through existing services provided to householders – particularly kerbside collections”.

This is because film does not travel along screens and other sorting equipment in the same way as other materials and could clog the system.  Furthermore, it believes household film could have a “severe” negative impact on the quality of newspapers and magazines in particular. Therefore, it says that any plastic packaging targets need to account for this and it must be accepted that the mixed household flexibles are not recyclable.

According to many in the industry much of the mixed material ends up exported. BPF’s Recycling Council chairman Mark Burstall explains: “It seems some sorters are saying they don’t bother to sort it in the UK because it’s cheaper to sort in China.”

Infrastructure firm May Gurney collects recyclables, including plastics, for a number of local authorities. Environmental services director Andy Bond says: “We definitely need more infrastructure in the UK. A lot of UK plastic is being exported at the moment, fairly well mixed, so it is being sorted wherever it ends up. It’s inevitable that if you’re collecting mixed plastics you’re going to have a lot of other stuff in there.”

Plastics industry figures believe that infrastructure is key to being able to meet plastic recycling targets…but targets are being set quicker than facilities are being built.

Plastics industry figures believe that infrastructure is key to being able to meet plastic recycling targets, while trying to keep materials quality high. But it seems that targets are being set quicker than facilities are being built.

“There are some issues at the moment because we don’t have the processing capacity in the UK, so some plastics are not necessarily ending up being recycled. Plastic film, for example, is ending up in refuse derived fuel rather than being recycled. It’s better than landfill but it’s not what the public are necessarily expecting,” says Bond.

“We are increasingly collecting mixed plastics because local authorities are very keen to add these materials to their collections. This is partly driven by the public asking ‘why not collect all plastics and not just bottles?’ But there is a wide variety of polymers and a lot of it is contaminated with food too. “

But investors are unlikely to provide cash for new infrastructure like a mixed plastics facility when it is so new and risky. They want to see a plant up and running, but there will be no new facilities up and running until investors take the plunge. It is a vicious circle.

Bottle reprocessor AWS Eco Plastics chief executive Jonathan Short told MRW that AWS hopes to handle mixed plastics in the future but it will not invest in facilities until it can understand exactly what is in the mix.

An increase in bottle recycling and commercial and industrial film are two most important waste plastic streams which will contribute to achieving recycling targets, believes Johansson. Film wrapped around pallets can be collected in high tonnages and is one polymer type of plastic. This is very different to household film, which is collected in very small tonnages and contains a variety of plastic polymers. Additionally, 40-45% of local authorities still do not collect plastic bottles.

Short warns that more bottle reprocessing capacity would mean more competition in the sector if bottle collections are not improved

The recent packaging consultation cited bottle collection and recycling as a priority to meeting targets. But Short warns that more bottle reprocessing capacity would mean more competition in the sector if bottle collections are not improved.

“If you look at bottle processors out there at the moment there are more than there is feedstock, so there is a concern that we could end up competing. I was under the view that the biggest competition was the Far East market who will compete against us for feedstock. It’s difficult because it means investors will be wary of the market. It’s something the Government need to look at because investment is not necessarily going to be forthcoming. Companies like us need to compete with the Far East which pay workers a dollar a day and eventually they’ll have enough material coming through where they don’t need us and they’ll turn the tap off. Investment has to start now so we have the right infrastructure but supply needs to be there to justify investment.

“At the moment 270,000 tonnes of plastic bottles are being collected and we need half. Once we’re back in the market I suspect prices will change. Our main competitor is Hong Kong so if they react to us coming back online they could put prices up to compete.” Short adds that due to the lack of PET in the UK market, AWS has to import a significant amount of material from Europe.

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