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The big issues for plastics packaging in 2012

After significant increases in the collection of household plastics packaging and maintained levels of commercial and industrial plastics recycling in recent years, the political focus has shifted to wider plastic packaging collections.

However, the infrastructure to handle and reprocess this material effectively has not yet caught up with collection levels, which also continue to increase.

The latest Defra packaging target consultation contains some very ambitious targets for 2013 to 2017, which some would argue are unrealistic given the current infrastructure. But Recoup will always advocate increased plastic recycling as long as it can be achieved sustainably and cost effectively.

This means collecting only materials for recycling that can actually be sorted and reprocessed in a commercially viable way and, most critically, improving the quality of material currently supplied – something that appears to be increasingly overlooked in what is still a tonnage driven activity.

Quality is inherently difficult to measure and control particularly within a commercial trading environment. Various initiatives expected in 2012 should encourage better quality, including the work of the ESA to improve material quality at MRFs. The time is also right to review how the PRN system operates in terms of UK versus export markets, and serious consideration of whether exported material should attract the same value subsidy through the PRN system as UK processed material.

The latest Recoup survey indicated that 282kt (48%) of plastic bottles were collected for recycling, with close to 22 million UK households having access to a kerbside recycling scheme which includes plastic bottles. Attention needs to be focussed on householder engagement and behaviour change to ensure that the kerbside schemes provided are being used to their full potential.

The survey also reported the continued growth in the collection of non bottle plastics packaging for recycling with over 76kt declared from a growing number of local authorities. The collection of plastic pots, tubs and trays is important and should continue but the sorting infrastructure must be capable of effectively handling the non-bottle plastics without detriment, either financially or operationally, to the existing recycling systems.

Standardisation of collection and sorting systems may not be viable or necessary, but instructions to householders need to be more consistent, whether collecting plastic bottles or a wider range of plastics packaging. The term ‘mixed’ has traditionally been used within the plastic recycling industry to describe mixed plastic bottles. But the introduction of wider plastic collections has also led to the adoption of the term ‘mixed plastics’. This may include or exclude a number of plastic packaging formats including bottles, some or all rigid items, flexible plastics, and even non packaging plastics. Recoup views ‘mixed plastics’ as an ambiguous term and tries to avoid it where possible. The terminology should be updated to reflect the four household plastic fractions: bottles, non-bottle rigid packaging, flexible, and non-packaging items.

The Recycle on the Go (ROTG) agenda has gained momentum. More corporate organisations and local authorities are installing consumer facing recyclables collection units at various locations including high streets and shopping centres, transport hubs, theme parks, hospitals, academia and of course sports and stadia, forming a key part of the London 2012 Olympics sustainability policy.

Commercial plastics recycling has developed as a direct result of recognition that this is generally a clean, homogenous waste stream which has an inherent value. This has evolved further as environmental awareness has grown, leading to more efforts in understanding waste streams and applying sustainable practices. But this does not always transpose, particularly into small businesses.

Trade recyclables collections, while developing, are still polarised. As with general commercial recycling opportunities, trade waste recycling needs to be more standardised, include plastic bottles and other packaging where available handling facilities exist, and needs to engage the wider trade community.

Recoup will continue to push stakeholders to ensure that the plastic packaging journey is both sustainable and viable in the short and the long term

Stuart Foster, CEO, Recoup, a leading authority on plastics waste management and recycling

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