A row over Swindon Borough Council’s proposal to stop recycling mixed plastics and send it to energy-from-waste (EfW) instead has been reignited.
Swindon is running a public consultation on its waste services and, as part of this, is proposing to “temporarily” stop recycling plastics because of uncertainty about exports and other markets.
Swindon’s plastic is collected by Thamesdown Recycling. The company told a local paper that the material is “fully traceable” although it has since refused to comment further.
Swindon collects plastics in separate plastic bags known as ‘baggy bottles’ that industry experts say is cumbersome and will not achieve top material prices, which they suspect is influencing the proposed change.
Recycling Association chief executive Simon Ellin described Swindon’s actions as “confused thinking”. He said it was “extraordinary timing” because the resources and waste strategy was due out next month which, alongside changes to extended producer responsibility, would mean a shake-up of duties as well as more money for local authorities for recycling.
He said: “They are suffering from a historically bad recycling system, but rather than reviewing the whole thing, they have decided to put it instead to EfW.
“[Swindon’s] recycling rates have been dropping for the past few years and it is extraordinary timing. I would say to all local authorities ‘please don’t follow this model’.”
Ellin also raised the question of the feasibility of stop-and-start plastics recycling, and was concerned about the long-term impact of sending a mixed message would have on the public.
He said: “To deliver new policy and new strategy and hit new targets, it isn’t just about consistency of collection – it is also consistency of behaviour and culture. We should be trying to sell to the public a consistent picture of what we can recycle sustainably.”
During the past five years, Swindon’s recycling rate has fallen by 10 percentage points to 38%, which is one of the reasons why the council said it is holding a consultation into its future waste plans.
The council did not provide comment to MRW. But ITV News reported the council’s cabinet member for recycling Maureen Penny as saying: “It could be that all our plastic is being treated absolutely perfectly, and we know where every little scrap is going. But I wouldn’t be happy if that little scrap of plastics from Swindon ends up in a dolphin’s stomach.”
Vanden Recycling managing director David Wilson said of the proposed change: “It would send a very bad message across the country.
“It would probably seem like a difficult thing to comprehensively stop plastics collections and then comprehensively restart them in the future.
“It does seem like Swindon needs to change the way it collects plastics. It would seem easier to make one change rather than two to improve the value of the material it is collecting.”
Swindon Borough Council on why it has stopped plastics recycling
Has this been prompted because of the way the council collects plastics, ie in a bag, which means it is more difficult to sell/ get a good price for plastics?
Our current collection method of collecting all recyclable plastics means we end up with a poor product that currently we have to pay to be processed. This collection method was decided upon in previous years when we had good plastic recycling markets.
Will not stopping plastics collections and then restarting plastics collections at a later date be difficult to do?
In the past we have made small changes to our plastics collections, removing and including different types of plastic, which can be very confusing for residents and leads to contamination.
A clear stop to collecting plastics will be far easier for residents to understand and, when it is reintroduced, we would be able to communicate the new collection from a clean slate, avoiding confusion around which type of plastic should and should not be recycled.
Swindon needs to change its plastics collections, it may be easier to make one change rather than two?
The main reason for us to stop plastics collections in Swindon is the current uncertainty around plastic markets. While the product we collect is not the best, we do not want to see any plastic ending up in landfill or worse overseas.
We know that since February our plastics have been sent to at least five countries with little certainty around the end destination, and the National Audit Office has highlighted concerns that our plastic may be ending up as pollution.
The method of collection comes secondary to this concern, and will be reviewed when we renew our fleet and assess the plastic recycling market in the coming years.
There is a secondary benefit of this move which is that, by putting plastic in the black bin, residents will have less space for other recyclables, increasing the recycling of glass, cardboard and metals.
The plastic in the black bin will be processed in our refuse-derived fuel plant, meaning the plastics get a second use and reduce the use of fossil fuel in Europe.