The recycling industry has come to a crossroads. With public awareness at a high, it is now the recyclers’ duty to step up and reimagine the industry. In the UK, this new thinking should put PET recycling first: it is the right time for the UK to start investing in PET.
Advanced Sustainable Developments (ASD) has plans to build several PET recycling plants across the UK, working closely with Government-backed Enterprise Zones (EZs), which have a specific focus on creating micro-industrial environments so that organisations can collaborate to share essential resources.
ASD has identified sites in the north-west and south-east of England that meet its circular economy contribution goals and provide transparency for all those involved. It is conducting feasibility and due diligence of additional UK sites that are in line with environmental best practice and located within an EZ. The company plans to process PET alone but, if it receives any material outside its scope, it will collaborate with a specialist recycler for that specific product to ensure zero landfill.
So why focus on PET now? Ten years ago, UK recyclers were relying on gifted materials. Councils were gifting feedstock: they were looking to get rid of their waste and pay for these collections, but were not getting the true value of their waste streams. There was almost no process and it certainly lacked transparency.
We can look back at past failures, when recyclers who tried to invest in PET went ‘too big and too early’ to the market. The challenge they faced – and failed – was that they did not have an intrinsic relationship with buying from waste producers.
ASD has designed partnerships with waste producers to ensure its feedstock, creating a circular economy. It is working with waste producers – from manufacturers, councils and private waste management companies to consumers – to understand the challenges when it comes to recycling their waste. While macroeconomics are important, ASD is focusing on the micro: analysing what is happening in trade and industry itself. What has changed in a decade is that people have realised that you take waste and bale it, and it has a value.
For the UK to succeed in recycling PET, recyclers must have a bidding mentality. ASD will always bid for waste and focus on on-the-go materials, which are ubiquitous in our lives. The company has identified a clear correlation between PET and on-the-go products.
The business model for ASD is to identify raw materials, then hunt and bid for them. It is a giant step forward in the mentality of recyclers from a decade ago, where there was little need for integration and partnerships.
The same goes for the output and the buyers of the final product. The company understands what the expectations of bottling manufacturers are; it knows that producers are under pressure from consumers, who want to make sure items will be recycled. Every step of the value chain has been understood.
Recyclers can no longer be simply a stand-alone entity. By working closely with waste suppliers and consumers it means that it can create a circular economy.
The argument I come across time and again is that consumers are moving away from plastic as they become more aware of its environmental impact. With the Government’s focus on curbing plastics use by methods such as extended producer responsibility and a proposed tax on plastics that does not have at least 30% recycled content, we should be seeing a decrease in the use of PET.
But the material will be used in manufacturing for at least the next 20 years. No one will suddenly stop using PET and replace bottles with other materials. Businesses are aware of the ‘plastics problem’ but it does not make financial sense to switch to a different ‘eco’ material. This is because they are not yet proven to provide economies of scale.
ASD is also creating its own deposit return scheme (DRS) to show the industry and consumers that the process can be streamlined. It says it would be happy to work with other DRSs and show the Government that they are successful. The company’s belief is that success stems from having a complete, transparent and holistic system to tackle the problem.
Finally, a key reason why the UK needs to invest in PET now is because of the global advancement in sustainability during the past 10 years. Technology has advanced so that we are seeing a cleaner and greener recycling process. Recycling PET has advanced, and equipment costs are not as high because technology has improved hugely. This has led to the recycling industry becoming more professional and transparent.
Such advancement in sustainability also means that buyers are under pressure to use recycled material – particularly from consumers and increasingly from the Government.
Ahmed Detta is founder and chief executive of ASD