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The problem with plastics...

RWM offered a wealth of options for plastics recycling so why aren’t we doing better at recycling this material? Alpha Waste Solutions had a stand at the show and its managing director Peter Vernon shares his thoughts.

Recycling rates of plastic packaging continues to increase because of advances in collecting, recycling and recovery. Nearly all types of plastics can be recycled, or recovered through energy from waste incineration.

But, compared with other materials such as metal and glass, plastic polymers require greater processing. The extent to which plastics are recycled depends on financial, technical and logistical factors.

The British Plastics Federation (BPF) have argued for years that plastics actually have a very good environmental profile. It says that just 4% of the world’s oil production is used for plastics and much less energy is used to produce it compared to other materials. Plastics are durable yet lightweight and thus save weight in cars, aircraft, packaging and pipework.

BPF figures indicate that the UK uses over 5m tonnes of plastic each year of which only an estimated 24% is currently being recovered or recycled. Although the benefits of recycling plastics are obvious, there are a number of barriers to removing large quantities of plastics from the waste stream.

It’s good to recycle

There are many benefits to be gained by the responsible recycling of plastics including:

  • Providing a sustainable source of raw materials to industry
  • Greatly reduces the environmental impact of plastic-rich products
  • Minimises the amount of plastic being sent to the UK’s diminishing landfill sites
  • Avoids the consumption of the earth’s oil stocks
  • Consumes less energy than producing new, virgin polymers
  • Encourages a sustainable lifestyle amongst the population

Many material recycling facilities are simply not equipped to sort the numerous types of plastic products in use at present, tending to focus on quantity rather than quality and are designed to just bale all plastic together.

Different plastics melted together tend to separate causing weakness in any resulting new material. The extraction of widely used dyes, fillers and other additives increase costs and, where biodegradable plastics have entered the process, with their varying properties and melt temperatures, recycling can prove difficult.

However innovations in plastic separation, sorting, washing and de-contamination technologies equipment have made it possible for mixed rigid packaging plastics to be efficiently collected and recycled and technically advanced plastics recovery facilities are now available in the UK.

Under the Waste Regulations, from January 1st 2015, waste collectors must take practical measures to ensure separate collection of paper, metal, plastic and glass prior to it leaving site and waste producers should consider measures they might need to take to ensure their waste can be collected separately, such as the installation of the right recycling products.

This follows recent amendments to the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 which came into force the end of September last year, whereby organisations now have to adhere to a new ‘waste hierarchy’ before disposing of their waste.

The hierarchy sets out, in order of priority, the options for managing waste that should be considered prior to disposal. In order of priority, these are:

  • Preventing waste by using less material in design and manufacture and re-using products
  • Preparation for reuse by checking, cleaning and repairing,
  • Recyclingby turning waste into a new product or substance
  • Other recovery such as energy recovery
  • Last of all disposal, for example by landfill and incineration without energy recovery

There is a legal obligation on businesses which make or use packaging (raw materials manufacturers, converters, packer/fillers and sellers) to ensure that a proportion of the packaging they place on the market is recovered and recycled.

As part of this year’s Budget, new packaging targets for 2013-17 were announced. Defra has set a target of increasing plastics recycling by 5% each year from our current rate of 32%, to 57% by 2017. The government is working with businesses to increase the use of recycled content in packaging as well as to make it more recyclable. A new consultation process will also take place, getting businesses to reduce packaging use over 2013 to 2017.

There is currently no mandatory need to mark plastics for recycling. Many small, common plastic items lack the universal triangle recycling symbol and accompanying number – e.g. the billions of plastic knives, forks and spoons commonly distributed in fast food outlets and supermarkets. The BPF recommends that larger parts and packaging should be marked with an appropriate and clear coding system.

Working with waste management companies, commercial organisations can ensure the minimum amount of plastics sent to landfill. Plastic is light yet bulky, so many companies may lack the storage space and resources to manage recycling and allow plastic waste to accumulate before collection.

One key thing that has reduced the level of general waste is the proper sorting of material at source, as well as in a recycling facility.  Authorities across Europe encourage more sorting at source, making it easier to separate out recyclable materials from general waste.

Disposing of plastic properly at source in the right receptacle is fundamental to ensure the maximum amount of recyclable plastic enters the process. Consumer awareness and understanding of what can and cannot be recycled can be improved – councils can encourage sorting at source and provide more information on recycling plastic waste.

The Government is working with businesses to increase the use of recycled content in packaging as well as to make it more recyclable.

Items such as plastic bottles, pots, tubs, trays, films and plastic bags are the most common types of household plastic waste.The vast majority of UK councils now offer householders some form of plastics recycling as part of the local authority waste collection system. New guidance for local authorities, launched by WRAP provides information on how to collect rigid plastic packaging, such as pots, tubs and trays and how to communicate with householders to ensure these materials are recycled as effectively as possible.

Manufacturers should also be incentivised to produce less plastic packaging, to mark it appropriately and to make a higher percentage of the packaging that is used recyclable. Sufficient investment in the right services and products at all levels in the chain will see a greater reduction in the volume of plastic sent to landfill.

Readers' comments (1)

  • A useful article. The comment about separate collections from January 2015 concerns me slightly, however.

    A potential customer suggested to me a few months ago that their lawyers had said there would need to be in place separate collections of paper, plastic, cardboard etc, and that 'dry mixed recycling' would not be possible any longer. Does anyone know if this is truly the case? I believe DMR as a package is a form of co-mingled collection that will satisfy the new regulations?

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