If you were to describe UK plastic reprocessing at present in one word, what would that word be? Can you explain why you would use that word?
Jessica Baker (JB): Frustrated. There are a good number of operators out there in the UK at the moment, but they are hampered by a lack of well-collected and good-quality material. But we are also hampered by regulations that allow unfair exports.
Keith Freegard (KF): Inadequate. Since 1997 when the packaging regulations were introduced, we have seen a series of producer responsibility regulations across all big plastics-consuming sectors – WEEE, ELV, packaging. These regulations were supposed to release an influx of cash that would enable investment, but that has not happened for a number of reasons.
Currently, we are recycling only 20-35% of all the plastic available in the UK. That is an inadequate result for what should have been 20 years of sustainable investment supported by well-structured regulatory drivers.
David Wilson (DW): Confused. It is hard to understand what is happening to the plastics sector at the moment because of what is going on in international markets. We do not understand what the implications of Brexit will be, of US tariffs on China and anything they do to retaliate, and how the ban on Chinese imports of plastic is now affecting other end markets.
The global environment in the plastics sector has always been a bit confused, but so many factors are coming together that are making it hard to produce a strategy for a plastics business right now. We are making investment decisions for post-industrial scrap and that does have some focus. But for the big bulk problem of post-consumer packaging, more insight is required.
JB: It has been a bit like that for 50 years, though. You find the market fluctuates at both ends of the business model. You are in the middle of two markets: one that you are buying from and another you are selling to. In plastics recycling, you have to learn to ride the rollercoaster.
What do you think are the main challenges in getting further growth in UK plastic reprocessing?
JB: There are a lack of commercial drivers in the current producer responsibility system. More markets are needed for reprocessed pellet and flake. Any move towards encouraging the greater use of reprocessed polymer would be applauded.
The current packaging recovery note/packaging export recovery note (PRN/PERN) system favours the export market unfairly. It costs more to create pellet in the UK than to export it, but the PRN/PERN value is the same. We need to adjust the cost of their respective evidence production methods.
KF: The main challenge is demand creation. A regulated move to mandated recycled content would create the necessary driver to pull through a much bigger volume of certified recycled plastic.
At the moment, companies buy recycled material because it is cheaper than virgin. But if major manufacturers are compelled to buy recycled content, then the material becomes a completely different product that has to be sourced from approved post-consumer recycled suppliers. That would be a great demand creator.
But we need more clarity on how we define ‘recycled materials’ to avoid the ‘passing-off’ of below-specification virgin and excess stock as ‘reclaim’ or ‘repro’. I am currently involved in writing a new protocol to define what material purchasers need to check for when buying truly recycled feedstock and working with key industry associations to prepare a first draft definition document.
If we can get this agreed across the sector, then recycled material will become a completely different market from virgin plastic, with its own supply-demand balance, and that will drive new capacity in the market.
DW: From my point of view, we need more market clarity. It does seem that events with China’s ban, Brexit and a trade war between the US and China are historically unusual to all come together. I would like to see the world settle down a bit more because that will allow for more investment.
When China closed, I saw it as an opportunity. But we are not grasping that opportunity with any urgency and rightly so. This is because we still do not understand the implications of the Chinese ban.
We have seen a lot of focus on single-use plastics since Blue Planet II. Do you think the focus on single-use is helpful or not?
DW: Single-use is unhelpful because it is too limited as a description. What should be of interest is the recyclability of a product. A milk bottle is single-use, but is widely recycled and makes sense to be used once.
If a product is designed to be single-use, then it needs to have accompanying infrastructure to collect and reprocess it. That means we need to rethink what is possible and impossible to recycle.
KF: ‘Avoidable single-use’ has been used as a nice soundbite, but it doesn’t begin to address the primary routes that end-of-life plastics follow on their journey to becoming ocean plastics. It just confuses consumers even more and is causing short-term, reactive responses in the retail markets.
JB: I understand the desire to reduce the use of plastics as a result of Blue Planet II, but reducing plastics has not got anything to do with the oceans. To keep the material out of the oceans, we have to take responsibility for plastics and dealing with our own waste.
We shouldn’t forget, though, that plastics are great. There are lots of fabulous uses that no other material comes close to, such as in medicine, for example, or in packaging.
But biodegradable plastics are once again coming to the fore and they do tremendous harm in existing recycling processes. Unless they are treated in an industrial process, they do not biodegrade but end up as microplastics.
DW: There is an optimistic sign from retailer Tesco, though, with a preferred list of materials that it wants suppliers to use to make packaging, in that it is questioning the use of biodegradable plastics.
In fact, if you think about it, biodegradable plastics are a real waste. They contaminate plastic recycling, are impossible to recycle, you don’t extract the energy from them when they break down, and we are left with bits of damaging microplastics.
Have you seen any improvements in quality recently?
JB: A little. But there is a lot more to do. There is a role for technology to improve quality, but the best thing we can do is go back a few steps. We need to improve collections and have fewer types of plastics being collected. This is more important than single-use straws.
KF: If the UK was starting all over again to address plastics recycling, and the main aim was to collect high-quality materials, then we would encourage the brands and designers to create a uniform design that can successfully go through a MRF with a high chance of coming out as properly recycled polymer pellet.
We would be insisting that pack designers put a mark on packaging, a green dot maybe, to show it can be put in the recycling bin and people know it should only be recycled if it has the green dot. Maybe there would be a red dot to show it couldn’t be recycled. It would then be up to the brands to make the commercial decision of whether they want their packaging to be presented as recyclable or not.
If you are a brand like Pringles and you don’t feel the need to use single material packaging, then maybe you would be happy to accept the extra producer responsibility charges associated with the red dot. Or maybe they might decide to change the pack design to get the fiscal and corporate social responsibility benefits of the green dot.
The existing On-Pack Recycling Label system could easily be modified to deliver this labelling method – which would, of course, be mandatory.
DW: We have got to start before processing for sure, and get the products designed right for recycling and the collection process optimised too. Ideally, we want to get to the point where everything that is recyclable has a closed loop end market.
JB: No one asks reprocessors what they think of design. The point Keith made that there has to be a commercial driver is a good one. If companies are putting something on the market that is recyclable, then maybe they get a reduction in their obligation.
DW: It could be as simple as they have no obligation on a product that is recyclable.
JB: Exactly. If there is a green dot on the packaging, it is not part of their obligation. If there is a red dot then it is obligated for PRNs.
An increasing number of critics of the UK’s recycling system say material in fact often ends up in landfill or is incinerated, and that we should not be reliant on exporting waste. How do we counter that?
JB: The criticism comes down to the lack of control we have on where material is sent. The PRN system has helped us to export low-grade materials by weight. We should only export material that has been prepared for recycling.
We have also been badly served by the enforcement agencies. We should not be exporting a lot of what we have done because it has been low value, sometimes illegal, and people have been able to get away with it.
We need to move towards a system where exports are only for material that has been sorted properly in preparation for recycling and does not contain a large element of waste material.
DW: I agree we shouldn’t be sending low-value materials abroad, but only a quality product for recycling. Market forces will overtake us anyway. Increasingly, we will prepare for export material only in reprocessed or other high-quality form. This feels like it is only months away and is a result of the Chinese import ban and the increased import restrictions and bans elsewhere.
Everything is now moving faster than the regulations and producer responsibility reform can deal with, and it is market forces that will lead to improvements in quality, otherwise we won’t have all the options we have now.
KF: To be honest, the critics would be much more upset if they really knew just how [little] of their carefully put-out for recycling plastic was actually being converted into new-life plastics. Our dependency on mass export of 65% of the plastics collected from UK households is a ticking time-bomb in terms of even greater consumer reaction against plastic as a useful packaging material.
“You are in the middle of two markets: one that you are buying from and another you are selling to. In plastics recycling, you have to learn to ride the rollercoaster.”
Jessica Baker, Chase Plastics:
“The PRN system has helped us to export low-grade materials by weight. We should only export material that has been prepared for recycling. We should not be exporting a lot of what we have done because it has been low value, sometimes illegal, and people have been able to get away with it.”
David Wilson, Vanden Recycling:
“If a product is designed to be single-use, then it needs to have accompanying infrastructure to collect and reprocess it. That means we need to rethink what is possible and impossible to recycle.”
Keith Freegard, Axion Polymers:
“A regulated move to mandated recycled content would create the necessary driver to pull through a much bigger volume of certified recycled plastic.”