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Going beyond the plastic bottle stream

The drive to recycle more plastics continues at a pace. Plastic pots, tubs, and trays are the bugbear of many consumers who want to be able to recycle them. There is increasing demand from manufacturers, brands and retailers who want to use recycled polymers in new products and packaging.

Efforts to recycle more plastics were given further impetus in this year’s Budget, which announced ambitious new recycling targets. The recycling industry can respond to this increased appetite by developing new capacity to process plastics in the UK – creating sustainable jobs as well as positioning the industry as a key player in the UK’s green economy with home-grown processing and manufacturing.

Local authorities are responding to these drivers, and a growing number are expanding their collections to recycle more types of plastic. In fact, 36% of councils have now added pots, tubs and trays to their plastic bottle collections (which are offered by 90% of local authorities).

We’re seeing anecdotal evidence that rigid plastics (pots, tubs and trays) are growing in value, while sending them to some energy from waste facilities could require gate fees approaching £100 per tonne. That’s not to mention the poor environmental outcomes of incineration when compared to recycling, and the rising cost of landfill tax. So the incentives for local authorities to collect more types of plastic are clear.

However – introducing rigid plastics collections where there isn’t suitable sorting infrastructure in place can jeopardise the quality of the valuable plastic bottle stream. Protecting the plastic bottle stream is the subject of guidance which WRAP published in January, which aims to help local authorities manage their plastic bottle collections more effectively. And for those authorities looking at expanding their plastic bottle collections to include pots, tubs and trays, WRAP has recently published new collections guidance on collecting rigid plastics – ‘Collection and Sorting of Household Rigid Plastic Packaging’.

This outlines all the issues that should be taken into account, like available sorting infrastructure and collection vehicles. The guidance is accompanied by communications materials, tested on the public, that can be used to help householders understand what can and cannot be collected.

Local authorities have a good opportunity to engage with residents on recycling during this year’s Recycle Week, which is taking place 18-24 June. One of the themes will be plastic bottles – so this is an ideal time to get householders involved with their local collection service, perhaps to promote a new/amended service, improve quality of materials, thank residents, or explain what happens to recycling after it has been collected. There are plenty of campaign recommendations and communications materials that can be downloaded at www.recyclenowpartners.org.uk.

It is important that the increase in plastics collections does not exceed the capacity we have to process these materials. The need for more UK capacity is urgent, which is why WRAP is providing support through a £5m Mixed Plastics Loan Fund. The first recipient of this fund was ECO Plastics, so I was delighted to attend the opening of its extended facility at Hemswell in Lincolnshire (see MRW 18 May). It will process 150,000 tonnes of plastic packaging per year and its development was supported by a £1.15m loan from WRAP (a combination of funding from WRAP’s Mixed Plastics Loan Fund and Accelerating Growth Fund).

This is a very important step in the UK’s effort to boost plastics recycling infrastructure, especially when we expect more plastic coming through the system as we work towards the 2017 target. More recycling businesses could gain a competitive edge by investing in this type of development. It’s also a great opportunity for the industry to build its contribution to a green economy, by creating jobs and keeping the value of recycled plastics within the UK.

Alongside efforts to increase capacity, we must not forget that there is still work to be done on the feasibility of recycling some types of plastic, particularly into new food packaging. This will ensure that robust markets exist for the growing number of plastics that are being recycled.

There is increasing demand from brands and retailers who want to include recycled content in PP packaging, to reduce carbon impact. While there are established processes for recycling HDPE and PET into food-grade materials, this is not yet possible for polypropylene (PP). One of the key requirements of producing recycled PP for food grade packaging is that it must have been food grade packaging previously. So ensuring that we can sort food packaging from other PP packaging is essential, and WRAP trials have shown this is possible using automated sorting technology. However, there is further work to be done to establish whether this is feasible on a commercial scale.

It’s a complex picture – but as an industry we’re making great progress. The 2017 target will be a challenge to meet, but the good news is that the drive is there to achieve it. From retailers, brands and manufacturers through to consumers, there is growing desire to recycle more plastics. It is great to see that industry is already responding to this, and I look forward to seeing more recycling of plastics in the UK in the future.

  • Further details about eligibility criteria and how to apply for WRAP’s Mixed Plastics Loan Fund can be found at www.wrap.org.uk/mplf
  • Technical and commercial guidance for local authorities www.wrap.org.uk/plasticbottlesguidance and www.wrap.org.uk/rigidplasticguidance

Marcus Gover is director of WRAP’s Closed Loop Economy Programme

Highlights of WRAP Rigid Plastic Packaging guidance

UK households produce 1.7m tonnes of plastic packaging each year. A third of this is bottles (550,000 tonnes), a quarter is non-bottle rigid plastics (450,000 tonnes) and the remainder is films and bags (720,000 tonnes).

In 2010 kerbside collected plastic bottle tonnages increased by 8.4% to 281,097 tonnes, while non-bottle tonnages increased by 101% to 76,364 tonnes. It is estimated that the 2010 figures equates to an overall bottle recycling rate of 48.5% and rigid packaging rate of 7–9%.

Baled mixed plastic bottles typically brought £177–£247 per tonne in 2011, while bales of all mixed plastics, including bottles and other rigid plastic packaging brought £100–£170 per tonne. Top-end prices are achieved for mixed bales if the MRF has not extracted PET or HDPE bottles for separate sale.

PRFs to be commercially viable tend to be large with the capacity to handle 80-100,000 tonnes a year. As well as being standalone facilities, some of the processes carried out a PRF may also occur at the front end of a reprocessing plant. Some PRF operators have invested in downstream reprocessing to make high-grade finished recycled polymers.

PRFs typically employ both manual and optical sorting processes to sort plastics by polymer type. These sort only by polymer type, they do not distinguish between bottles and non-bottle rigid packaging of the same polymer type. PRFs generally separate out PET, HDPE, PP and PS, and then separate these further into coloured and clear streams, as clear plastics bring a higher value.

Washing and extrusion is technically challenging and expensive to operate, and a reprocessor who can manage to achieve 70–80% of virgin price for their product is doing well. Losses can be as high as 50% from labels and product contents as well as from non-target material contamination.

The Chinese market is a key outlet for recycled plastic since it is the world’s largest user of virgin and recycled plastic, creating both demand and competition for materials. China was estimated to have manufactured about 58.3 million tonnes of plastic products in 2010.

 

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