Most pundits agree that the next five years will be challenging for the UK’s plastic recycling sector. Against the advice of much of the plastics industry, the Government is to press ahead with increasing targets for recycling plastic packaging waste by 5 percentage points every year from 2013 to 2017.
This is a bold step, and the target will call for a step change in the activity levels of businesses engaged in the collection, sorting and reprocessing of waste plastics.
Sceptics are yet to be convinced that such a radical increase in the tonnage of plastic for recycling can be achieved. Even with continuing strong demand from the Far East, they believe the increasingly complex and lightweight nature of plastics packaging materials, especially films, will ultimately preclude cost-effective mechanical recycling - leaving energy recovery the only viable option.
To critics of Government policy, it appears both dogmatic and hubristic to pursue such a forlorn hope. But let us cast our minds back 15 years or so to the inception of the Waste Packaging Regulations and consider the plastics recycling industry that existed in the UK at that time.
Most plastic that was recycled then was clean, post-production scrap along with some of the cleanest post-industrial transit wrapping films. The export markets had little or no traction as they lacked serious volume to feed off. Domestically generated plastic waste was rarely, if ever, collected.
Since that time, we have experienced a revolution in the recycling of the UK’s waste plastics. A burgeoning export sector now accounts for well over 70% of the plastic waste collected in the UK. Even more significant has been the growth of high-profile specialist plastics reprocessing businesses focused on the UK’s domestic plastic packaging waste.
Such developments were unlikely to have occurred within the same timescale without the impetus created by the UK’s plastic packaging recycling targets. Bearing this historical precedent in mind, it is perhaps fair to give credit to the Government for once again throwing down a gauntlet to the UK’s plastics recycling sector.
Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by any recycling business is access to sustainable raw material streams.
Waste is never created solely to meet demand from recyclers. So the pressure created by higher targets for more plastics to come from the domestic waste stream should be welcomed by the sector as it will provide a steadily increasing supply of raw material.
Significant challenges remain, and there is no guarantee of success simply through application of the tactics of the past decade. Volume-based collection targets, combined with commingled collections and a fundamentally flawed packaging recovery note system, seriously compromise the quality of material collected in the UK for recycling. This issue requires urgent attention.
The proposed MRF code of practice is therefore welcome. But development of innovative end markets for recycled plastics is also of vital importance. Some form of encouragement for the manufacturing sector to take on this challenge should be high on the Government’s agenda.
We will know in 2017 whether the sceptics were correct - but this will be of academic interest only.
Plastics recycling businesses should instead be focusing on the opportunities presented by access to an increasing volume of waste, and working together to forge new, wealth-generating markets for this most valuable of resources.
Bernard Chase, purchasing director of Regain Polymers