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Plastics: policy driven by the media spotlight

Intense media and governmental scrutiny on plastic waste has completely shifted the public attitude to an age-old problem. It may be an uncomfortable time for some retailers and manufacturers, but recyclers and innovators that deal with plastics must be enjoying their time in the spotlight. 

Many of the arguments currently being aired in the mainstream media have been rehearsed for years within the industry. This time, everyone is playing their part.

Sensitivity to adverse publicity has led to a number of supermarket chains making bold proclamations on cutting plastic packaging, and plastics producers have been put on the defensive. The British Plastics Federation (BPF) said it was surprised at a pledge by food re- tailer Iceland to eliminate plastic packaging from its own-brand pro-ducts, arguing that carbon emissions could rise through using alternative materials.

BPF director general Philip Law commended the prime minister for many of the initiatives in the 25-year environment plan (see Factfile below), but warned that a proposal to encourage ‘plastic-free aisles’ in supermarkets would create the impression that plastics are inherently wrong.

“The types of products that enter the marine environment from the UK tend to be those that have been irresponsibly littered – not packaging materials for fresh produce that are typically consumed at home and then disposed of responsibly,” he said.

Environmental campaigners are more welcoming of the headlines. But a number of lobby groups were concerned at a lack of firm commitments in the 25-year plan and some relatively weak targets.

daily mail plastic cover

daily mail plastic cover

Professor Tim Cooper, sustainable design researcher at Nottingham Trent University, was underwhelmed: “The plan proposes that no avoidable plastic waste should be generated by 2042. But why should any avoidable waste be generated, plastic or otherwise, and why choose such a distant target?

“Much waste could be avoided by pro- ducing longer lasting goods and finding the means to realise the value of materials contained in unwanted, obsolete items. Questions about what is ‘avoid-able’ could lead to a debate about our needs and wants. The prime minister surely did not intend to undermine consumerism, did she?”

It could be that China’s policies will have more effect than those of our own Government. Import restrictions are having serious knock-on effects for plastics recycling here. The US trade press has reported that the Chinese administration is looking to invest in overseas infrastructure, including the UK, in order to secure a better stream of material and meet its own tighter import rules.

Keith Freegard, director of recycler Axion Polymers, says the 25-year environment plan was a “good start”, but the China problem had already focused minds on the need to create demand for recycled materials.

Before Christmas, the Environmental Audit Committee called for the introduction of a mandatory requirement of 50% recycled content in the production of new plastic bottles by 2023. It is this kind of immediate action that Freegard wants to see in order to boost secondary markets. “I think the demand creation in materials-hungry industries is where there really needs to be some more Government intervention in terms of strategic policy.

“Recycled material can be bought from anywhere in the world; clearly the best place would be from locally sourced and secure, short-supply chains within the same economy and same currency. That should make  a strong sustaina-bility story for any industry.”

Benjamin Eule, director at MRF engineering firm Stadler UK, said his company was receiving “ever-increasing” requests to retrofit sorting systems to cut down on contamination following China’s restrictions.

“Still, efficiency alone cannot solve the issue,” he warned. “Not all plastic mat-erials can be recycled due to contamin-ation, low-grade properties and composite plastics, so fresh solutions for treating our waste are needed. In the short-term, finding a solution is proving challenging – only further segregation of mixed plastics will help.”

The 25-year plan reiterated commitments to harmonise local authority collections (see page 13), and it is hoped that this will prove effective in producing a better plastics stream.

But strategies are no good unless they are backed by hard cash. Announcements that will grab the industry’s attention include Government funding for materials research and development. The European Commission is also going to commit £89m for plastics research.

Innovation in a range of technologies will be essential if the visible and deeply unpopular plastics waste problem is to be solved. Many within the industry believe that energy-from-waste will need to play a greater role. But one major waste management firm told MRW that its plants were running at capacity and taking in additional plastic would displace other waste into landfill. Excessive plastics intake also does trad-itional EfW facilities no good because of its high calorific content.

Efforts to make advanced conversion technology such as pyrolysis cost-effective following the failure of Air Products in 2016 will be just as important as developing new materials. Beyond the headlines, industry needs more than warm words. 

A flurry of policies

Less than a week after Theresa May focused on plastics in the launch of the 25-year environmental plan, the European Commission somewhat stole her thunder by launching a strategy with more eye-catching proposals and earlier target dates. Guided by the circular economy package, the EU is committed to a 50% target for plastic packaging recycling of by 2025, rising to 55% by 2030. Whether the UK will choose to follow suit remains to be seen.

Defra 25-year environment plan highlights:

  • No “avoidable” (technically, economically and environmentally practicable) plastics waste by 2042
  • Consultation on tax or charges on single-use plastic
  • Reform of the packaging recovery note system
  • Voluntary or compulsory extension of 5p plastic bag charge
  • “Work with WRAP to explore plastic-free supermarket aisles”
  • Beis, Innovate UK, research councils and industry to bring forward of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund awards in 2018 to help develop more sustainable materials

European Commission plastic strategy highlights:

  • All plastic packaging in the EU to be recyclable by 2030
  • More than half of plastics waste generated in EU to be recycled By 2030
  • A four-fold increase in sorting and recycling capacity by 2030, creating 200,000 new jobs
  • An additional £89m funding from Horizon 2020 to help develop “smarter and more recyclable plastics materials, making recycling processes more efficient, and tracing and removing hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics”

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