China is no longer the recipient of two-thirds of the UK’s used plastic. Following Beijing’s commitment to the Paris Climate Change Commitment and National Sword campaign in 2017, it has now implemented an import ban on all low-grade plastic materials, requiring the UK to find another solution for a significant volume of its waste.
The UK Recycling Association has reported resulting build-ups of waste and processed plastic at recycling plants across the country. This could force councils to send the majority of the waste to landfill, unless alternative markets and methods are found.
Only certain regions have contracts in place to effectively recover waste via energy-from-waste and the UK does not have the infrastructure or capacity, to incinerate all of the waste that is piling up. With landfill close to capacity, there will soon be no more space available. The UK needs to think long-term.
One answer is greater investment and development in recycling efficiency to maximise national capacity. A fundamental aspect to achieving this is improved technology. In doing so, productivity and product purity can be maximised, while minimising costs. Using advances in digitisation and artificial intelligence, largely in the form of automation and robotics, is an effective way of driving the sector towards efficiency.
Stadler, for example, is receiving an ever-increasing number of requests from recycling plants looking to retrofit existing sorting systems to increase product purity and overall efficiency. Through the latest technology and review of existing processing steps, we can create solutions that perfectly fit a site’s available space. Few suppliers can do this while minimising plant downtime.
Still, efficiency alone cannot solve the issue. Not all plastic materials can be recycled due to contamination, low-grade properties, and composite plastics, so fresh solutions for treating our waste are needed. EfW is only one solution, but addressing the capacity gap must be a key national priority.
Improving recovery rates by enhancing collection schemes should decrease the amount of mixed plastics still being disposed of as residual waste. Government support is essential for this and the onus should not be on the recycling sector alone. Very often product design including packaging introduces new combinations of plastic compounds and multilayer waste products which further increase the mixed plastic problem. Again, government support is needed to simplify packaging, so that the whole material cycle is considered.
In the short-term, finding a solution is proving challenging, only further segregation of mixed plastics will help. In the medium-term, next to EfW (which will play an ever-increasing role), it is important to provide more processing capacity and reward businesses who consciously produce recoverable packaging and, in particular, recoverable plastics. It should also be considered to reduce the amount of plastic being used for packaging, which would reduce the need to recycle it.
In the long-term, consumer engagement will play a key part. If we can make smarter decisions about what we are purchasing and understand the waste we are creating, significantly reducing and potentially eliminating plastics and contamination from the supply chain is entirely possible.
Benjamin Eule, director at Stadler UK