Plastic is one of the most remarkable and versatile materials to have been developed, and it would be hard to imagine life as we know it without it.
Plastic has transformed the way we live, in packaging, given longer life to food products, and it forms the major component parts of many of the products we buy. However, it has also become one of the major blights in the world’s environment. One only has to see pictures of the developing world to see discarded plastic, mainly bottles strewn everywhere, and its effect on our oceans is catastrophic.
It can of cause be recycled, but the complexity in the different types of polymers and so on doesn’t make this easy, and creates the largest area of confusion for people when we ask them to sort their waste for recycling.
People understand metal, glass, paper and card, but plastics have us studying numbers in triangles stamped on them and scratching our heads as to whether the local authority collection service can actually take it as part of its collection arrangements. The result, it either gets thrown away in the residual waste stream or gets put in the recycling stream, where if it happens to be a ‘none target’ material for that collection system, causes contamination.
Running my own mini material recovery system in my day job has really bought home just how confused people are. We only collect plastic bottles, because they have the highest value, and I’m afraid in these continuing difficult times for local authorities, income generation comes first, even though I want to provide a more comprehensive plastic collection service to residents.
With the other materials we collect, the quality is very good, and we have few issues, but plastics are another matter. Dog beds, laundry baskets, the casing from vacuum cleaners, we get them all, and of course they are all made from plastic. But they are often not the kind of plastic we want, because we can’t find a financially viable market for them.
Clearly things need to change, and there are signs within the supply chain industry that they are. Marks and Spencer announced at last year’s Recoup conference that they had set themselves a challenge to get down to using a single polymer for their packaging, and Unilever has recently announced that it is looking to seriously rationalise the number of polymers it uses in its production of packaging.
The Co-op has also called for a common approach when it comes to what can and can’t be recycled, and for me this is the key. We have to work together as a supply chain to solve this. We can collect anything, but we need to do so for the right reasons and have security in the reprocessing sector to ensure we have something which is sustainable and everyone can understand.
Andrew Bird is chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee