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Mixed plastics: the future of recycling?

Mixed plastics packaging is trad-itionally seen as the bugbear of the household rubbish bin. Or at least it was until last week. Now, a brand new facility will sort and process rigid mixed plastic packaging from both municipal and commercial waste streams. The concept of service is not a new one to local authorities and consumers, but how does this work in reality as material is streamed around the supply chain?

The view of the householder
Lucy is busy. She has a four-year-old and an eight-year-old and a full-time job. When her local council, South Northamptonshire, first started collecting mixed plastics packaging, her first reaction was “thank goodness”.

“I’m not really a particularly green person, but I do try to re-use my shopping bags and that kind of thing. To be honest, I could never understand why the council didn’t recycle yoghurt pots,” Lucy says. “When the scheme started, I was really pleased. It’s hard enough trying to remember what can and cannot go into the recycling bin, while also planning what we are going to eat for dinner and get the boys to school on time. Now we hardly throw anything away, and I feel as though I’m doing my bit for the environment much more.”

Clearly thrilled with the service, she adds that it has made her and her husband much more aware of packaging and just how much more they can recycle.

The view of the local authority
Bridgend County Borough Council introduced a kerbside collection of mixed plastics packaging alongside a wide range of other recycling materials in June 2010 for 60,000 households.

Group manager for street works Huw Jenkins explains: “Best value, meeting targets and customer service were the key drivers to Bridgend’s service change in June 2010. We undertook a comprehensive market testing exercise and then a Competitive Dialogue Process with no idea what the outcome would be, and were thoroughly impressed by the competitive bids we received.

“Our recycling service is delivered by our new partner, May Gurney, and now includes a broad range of materials including mixed plastic packaging and food waste. The impact on our recycling rate has been phenomenal: within three weeks recycling had increased from 30% to 50% and it’s still rising, albeit at a slightly slower and more steady rate.

“To be honest, I could never understand why the council didn’t recycle yoghurt pots”

“As kerbside collection schemes have expanded, householders can now identify more easily what is left over in the residual waste bin. Pots, tubs and trays are one of the most visible elements of that, so we were pleased to be able to provide this particular service to residents. Our contractor has been excellent in terms of value and service. May Gurney has an innovative vehicle design which allows all materials to be collected in one vehicle - but these are sorted at the kerbside too, so residents can see that their recycling does get recycled.

“In addition to getting the collection infrastructure right, the availability of UK sorting facilities is also crucial. We track our material to its final destination, and this is really important to give all our customers confidence and the best service possible. The expansion of the UK market will be a real help to those councils that are able to collect.

“My feeling is that more local authorities will want to do this in the future. Its popularity is growing among residents and, from our experience, has been the best choice financially and we can really demonstrate the value. In fact, the weekly cost of household collections of dry, residual, food, bulky and clinical waste is just £1 per household.

“I think one of the key things that enabled our success was open communication, with the contractor and the customer. We spent a lot of time talking to householders, and raising awareness through roadshows and theatre groups in schools and the like. Our recycling rate has leapt 20% and our residents are broadly happy, so councillors are delighted with the change.”

The view of the industry
Biffa Polymers chief executive Martin Marron is a happy man. “I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, and plastic is now the material of choice in numerous household and industrial applications. The recent WRAP research showing it was technically possible and commercially viable to process mixed plastics really struck a chord with our existing thinking about the future of the material streams. So in 2010, as Greenstar WES was nearing completion of its concept for the UK’s first mixed plastics recycling facility, it was seen as a perfect match for both companies to merge.

“My thoughts are that this really is the future of recycling. The Redcar facility (see below) encompasses the most modern technology and thinking to achieve the purest possible end product. We’re selling that product in the global marketplace to leading brand businesses, which really understand the importance of sustainable manufacturing. We always thought it could be done, so it’s great to be at the leading edge of our field once more, following the success of our food-grade rHDPE project.

“We work closely with our suppliers, both local authorities and our MRFs. Good communication is key. We will continue to work closely with councils on collection of feedstock, with a clear focus on recycling all mixed plastics and producing high-grade polymers for our customers.”

The view from WRAP
WRAP director of market development Marcus Gover says: “We all know it is important to recycle, but UK homes throw away more than 1.5 million tonnes of plastic packaging every year.

“That’s why I’m delighted that local authorities, reprocessors such as Biffa and end markets are now increasingly looking to recycle more plastic packaging - and the opening of the facility in Redcar makes that possible. Recycling of plastic bottles has increased hugely in the past 10 years, and more than half of all plastic bottles are now recycled in the UK. WRAP’s aim is to help mixed plastics have a similar success story.”

MIXED PLASTICS SUPPORT

WRAP’s Mixed Plastics Loan Fund is a limited fund of up to £2m that has been established to address the reprocessing capacity gap currently existing for mixed plastics within England.
For more information, visit www.wrap.org.uk/mplf

BIFFA POLYMERS: A CLOSER LOOK

Greenstar WES, now Biffa Polymers, was successful in winning WRAP funding in January 2010 for the UK’s first fully integrated washing and sorting facility.

  • Location: Redcar, Middlesbrough
  • Local jobs created: 26, staff now in place
  • Capacity: 15,000 tonnes a year from April 2011, increasing to 20,000 tonnes a year from April 2012
  • Inputs: customers include commercial and public sector clients across the UK and Northern Ireland
  • Outputs: global markets for high-quality material sorted by colour and polymer

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