The single biggest challenge to delivering a truly circular economy for plastics, where packaging waste is recycled here in the UK, has been competition from comparatively low cost and less regulated overseas markets.
If we thought that China’s decision to effectively ban imports of plastic and other solid waste for recycling last year would be a game-changer, then the evidence from UK Government data is that not much has really changed.
Recycling capacity has simply migrated to new destinations of choice around the Pacific Rim.
There is clearly a question of whether these markets will be sustainable given the concerns over the colossal quantities of plastic waste entering the oceans – most of it originating from the very countries which are the primary export markets for UK plastic packaging waste.
Unless there is a fundamental change in our plastic recycling strategy, potential investors will continue to be fearful that their investments will be undermined by the next low-cost plastic recycling markets which might emerge.
Anecdotally, yields from the recycling of household plastics in UK recycling plants are down, in a range from around 50-80%, depending on the type of material and the quality of sorting.
Axion, which recently estimated that it would take investment of £100m in collection, sorting and recycling infrastructure to process materials in the UK, is quite right to ask what happens to fractions sent to recycling operations outside the developed world, where regulation is less robust.
Sky Atlantic’s documentary Dirty Business has provided evidence of exports of unrecyclable UK plastic waste, and this can only serve to undermine confidence that recycling really does mean recycling.
Phil Conran, chair of the Advisory Committee on Packaging, intimates that Government agencies have neither the resources nor the ability to effectively control what waste we export or audit the facilities where the recycling is done.
It means a very big piece of work is required to convince the public that the UK employs the highest standards of stewardship and properly discharges its duty of care.
We can all support the Plastic Pact’s aspiration to keep plastic waste in the economy and out of the natural environment. Let us make sure we are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Roger Baynham is the Chair of the British Plastics Federation Recyclers Group