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Plastics - 20 July 2012

The plastics markets are regularly changing, with a number of factors influencing the demand and direction of pricing for recovered plastics.

Key factors include crude oil and virgin plastic pricing; waste and recycling legislation, including fiscal measures such as landfill tax; global demand; and manufacturing output of plastic products.

Localised market demand for plastic bottles in the UK has also resulted from unprecedented growth in reprocessing capacity during the past few years, and this has had an influence on values offered to UK suppliers.

There is a broad range of plastic grades produced from different collection and sorting facilities. This is particularly the case for mixed fractions, whether it is bottles, polytrimethylene terephthalate (PTT) or a combination.

These fractions are generally more susceptible to wider value ranges because of a greater potential level of contamination from non-target plastics and other materials.

The key to effective communications is generally to keep it simple, so requesting all pots, tubs and trays is thought to be the more sensible approach

Consumers are keen to recycle their plastics, while councils are eager to introduce wider plastic collections to meet this consumer demand. But, as indicated, mixed plastics are generally harder to define, presenting several potential challenges.

While the PTT market is generally still underdeveloped, the values of some fractions are more likely to attract a value. Polypropylene plastics, which include many soup, ice cream and margarine tubs, are a prime example.

But the key to effective consumer communications is generally to keep it simple, so requesting all pots, tubs and trays is thought to be the more sensible approach.

This also works on the basis that many sorting facilities do not have the equipment to separate bottles from PTT, let alone try to separate specific plastic types. This can be done by a plastic reclamation facility (PRF) or by reprocessors with the appropriate equipment.

It becomes apparent when talking to the general public that there is a desire to do the right thing. But complex recycling messages beyond ‘bottles’ or ‘bottles, pots, tubs and trays’ can become lost and cause more questions to be asked.

It is the dedicated few who will seek out plastic codes, detailed guidance and ask technical questions that make us think about whether the simple messages are enough.

The wrong material being placed in the recycling container at home has, and will continue to lead to, a greater expense for the sorting and reprocessing facilities, either in additional labour or further sorting equipment. If this material cannot be sold, a landfill cost will also be incurred.

Reprocessors have noted it is becoming progressively harder to obtain high-quality plastic bales from MRFs - high quality meaning the amount of material supplied within the specification set by the reprocessor receiving that material.

Reprocessors have different specifications depending on how their facility is set up and which equipment has been installed.

Less that 5% contamination was historically used as a benchmark for an acceptable bale of material. Many plastic bales now contain more than 20% non-requested items. It should be noted that PTT is only within specification when requested by the reprocessor it is sent to.

Infrastructure must be developed and put in place before increasing the types of plastic collected from households. Without this, the quality of bottles will be diminished even further than today, resulting in lower prices and, importantly, fewer market options.

But it is not just quality of material supplied that affects the market.

Our good old British weather has given us little summer sunshine so far. This will affect product sales trends. The number of PET plastic bottles used and subsequently disposed of will increase when the sunshine arrives.

The poor weather will also affect sales of products which are commonly made from recycled plastic content including watering cans and water butts.

Export duties and shipping rates will also be reflected in pricing. The increases in recent months will have been reflected in lower values and lower export market demand. This will also impact on the stock levels held by UK reprocessors, which is thought to be high.

Recoup is monitoring local authority collections and opinions throughout the year, including market perceptions, and its annual report will be available in the autumn.

Stuart Foster, chief executive, Recoup

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