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Plastics - 7 December

The market for plastics has again remained stable this month, with little fluctuation in the values being offered, continued concerns about potential future Chinese policy on waste imports, and lowering packaging recovery note (PRN) values since the positive Q3 plastic packaging recycling data was published.

December is historically more challenging for logistics, with some sorting and reprocessing facilities reducing hours or shutting down during Christmas and the new year. This may lead to some restrictions on the volume of material entering facilities and slightly greater price ranges offered depending on individual market requirements.

This is already particularly evident in the prices offered for HDPE, which varied between £340 per tonne and £390 per tonne in the past month. Clear PET has remained stable above £300 per tonne and mixed bottles have remained constant above £90 per tonne.

One of the largest influences on the value offered is quality. This is particularly evident in mixed bottle and mixed bottle, pot, tub and tray material, which shows the widest variation in prices.

There are a number of reasons why the quality of recovered plastics has generally declined during the past five years, which has gradually seen the reported value ranges increase. It reflects the wide range of grades for this fraction depending on the collection and sorting methods used.

Increasing the range of plastics collected, complex recycling messages to consumers and lack of educational information are also thought to affect plastic bale quality supplied to reprocessors. It has been suggested by key figures within the recycling industry that a co-ordinated awareness campaign is needed for householders and councils. This is something that Recoup intends to deliver in 2013.

Another symptom of reducing quality is the use of the word ‘mixed’, which is difficult to specify against. To deal with the lower quality mixed plastic bales, sorting and reprocessing facilities must improve their technical capabilities in order to process the greater range of plastic material collected. Without this, the quality of bottles will diminish even further, thus reducing prices and resulting in fewer viable market options.

Reprocessors have noted that it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain high-quality bales.

Historically the generally accepted standard was 5% bale contamination, but it is commonplace today to find bales that contain more than 15% contamination. This adversely affects costs to reprocessors, who have to further sort the recyclable material from any contamination.

The pot, tub and tray fraction particularly suffers from not being produced to a specification in many cases, which makes it more difficult to understand value implications. Mixed pots, tubs and trays are often combined with bottles, which artificially enhances the value, or contains high levels of non- plastic waste which reduces the value, often into a negative.

There are a number of initiatives that, if put into place, could help to improve bale quality and allow reprocessors to purchase material with a greater confidence.

One is the proposed but delayed MRF code of practice. Another is the certification and audit scheme called EUCertPlast, which has been launched with the aim of standardising plastic recycling specifications.

This was a recently completed three-year project aiming at creating a European certification for post-consumer plastics recyclers and providing a certification of quality. If widely adopted in the UK, it should allow end markets to purchase plastics confidently from certified suppliers.

With the new packaging recycling targets requiring significant extra levels of plastic to be collected during the next five years, there is an urgent need for collection rates to increase across all fractions of plastic packaging, including household and commercial sectors.

But developments in quality protocols will also be necessary to ensure the plastics collected for recycling can be effectively and viably reprocessed, irrespective of the end market destination.

Stuart Foster, Managing director, Recoup

How can the plastics sector respond to the challenge of higher targets? Read the views of FCC Environmental’s Paul Dumbleton at MRW.co.uk/8639657.article

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