Jonathan Short asks, how can we make the most of our resources as recycling rates rise?
In recent years the UK recycling industry has come on in leaps and bounds. The amount of general waste recycled today is 400% higher than it was a decade ago; consumers, the industry and the Government should all be applauded for their part in this sterling effort.
But the fact that we are now recycling more is only half of the story. The challenge is to make sure that we make the most of our waste resources.
As we have seen the amount of waste collected increase, we have also found far greater levels of contamination. ECO Plastics’ own experience bears this out. In 2008, a typical bale of plastic coming through our doors contained 95% plastic bottles; three years later, that figure stands at less than 80%. In place of high-value plastics, we are increasingly finding a higher proportion of products that cannot be recycled at all.
So how can we resolve the problem? Voluntary measures such as the MRF Code of Practice may help to change the flow of direction, but are unlikely to do the job on their own. The assumed best markets for the waste management companies will often accept a degree of contamination, so expecting businesses to add processing stages that damage their competitiveness is unrealistic. An industry-wide agreement will be beneficial, but there will always be those who focus on the short term.
As we have seen the amount of waste collected increase, so has contamination
I believe the solution is simpler. At present the industry and its processes are a mystery to consumers. They understand that recycling is a good thing, but have no idea how it works, which items have most value and even what can and cannot be recycled.
So the first stage is an education campaign. Providing people with a greater understanding of how the system operates will not only increase their confidence in it (itself an important issue), but it will at a stroke make a significant difference to what goes into the waste stream that is fed into our MRFs.
Part of the reason that people are uncertain about recycling is the multitude of systems in operation across the country. The varying sophistication of our MRF infrastructure makes it difficult to argue that we should have one uniform set of practice for every local authority, but equally there are some ‘absolute’ items. Black plastic food trays, for example, cannot currently be recycled and should not therefore enter the recycling stream, but plastic bottles can and should always
be returned to the system.
What is clear is that the UK is at a crucial juncture. Get it right and we will have a fully self-sufficient industry, where materials used in the UK are all collected, sorted, recycled and reformulated here, before returning to domestic markets. A living example of the Government’s green economy. Get it wrong and the outlook is far bleaker.
The UK industry currently exports some of its lower-quality plastics. But with the Chinese economy expanding rapidly, it is highly unlikely that they will want to take our waste for much longer. Unless we can exploit the resource now, we will not be able to develop a modern system capable of processing all waste and so will be left with no choice but to landfill at a time when capacity will be even more scarce than it is today.
Jonathan Short is founder and chief executive of ECO Plastics