There is a lot going on in the plastics recycling sector. Financially stressed companies and falling global oil prices aside, there is a growing need to address the issue of plastic materials that cannot be successfully recycled – the so-called ‘unrecyclables’.
A sizeable amount of waste plastic in this country has been labelled unrecyclable because it is either technically difficult or economically unviable to recover the material content. Tackling this waste stream would add previously unrecyclable products back into the circular economy and help the UK to meet EU recycling targets.
Latest figures for the UK’s performance suggest rising recycling rates for post-consumer plastics packaging as measured by PRN returns and the national packaging waste database. The annual Recoup survey indicates a corresponding increase in collections of post-consumer pots, tubs and trays from the kerbside and more councils rolling out an increased plastics collection service for householders.
So you would think that we have a healthy and growing industry in the UK. Yet, in the past few months, we have seen major companies facing administration, being taken over and warning of dire consequences unless the market improves.
It is evident that there is a huge chasm between the statistics indicating everything is rosy and the evidence from the reprocessing companies at the coal face of the industry, who are struggling to make recycling pay.
One key factor in the economics is the massive unrecyclable fraction of plastic packaging items captured from kerbside, because the output yields and saleable tonnages of high-quality, fully reprocessed, closed-loop polymers – post-consumer rHDPE, rPET and polypropylene – are simply not selling at a price and volume to make large-scale UK reprocessing a viable business plan any more. A vast amount of the collection, sorting, transport and processing effort is generating a high level of unrecyclable plastic, which then has a positive cost of disposal for the recycler.
Another example is waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills is proposing provisional household WEEE collection targets significantly above EU requirements after the UK exceeded last year’s target. Yet the actual tonnages of WEEE plastic being recycled through to finished quality polymer in the UK is a tiny percentage of the total amount being generated by the system.
It is a similar situation with end-of-life vehicles (ELVs). Significant tonnages of plastics are collected annually and a producer responsibility system is in place, yet the actual tonnage of true post-consumer ELV plastic going back into the closed-loop economy is small. For WEEE and ELV, the high reported figures suggest a strong and growing recycling industry, yet the evidence on the ground indicates that is not the case.
What is the solution? A major stumbling block is the focus of legislation; it is too waste-orientated. We do not focus the impact of these legislative economic drivers on to the ‘demand-side’ benefits which can be enjoyed by UK manufacturers from properly capturing our packaging, WEEE and ELV waste for high-yield closed-loop plastic recyclates to make new goods in this country.
Today, even our so-called recyclable material streams still contain a significant slice of unrecyclables. That slice presents major technical challenges to reprocessors.
Existing producer responsibility schemes need to create the right economic drivers so we can move forward on sustainable design and simplicity of choice in materials. This will increase the overall yields of good quality polymers from the reprocessing of waste plastic.
Perhaps it is time to review what producer responsibility is all about. The outdated original ‘polluter pays’ policies from the early 1990s and the ‘big stick’ enforcement approach has created a huge disconnect between manufacturers and recyclers.
This did not encourage engagement and involvement in designing new products that could be recycled more easily or create enough positive drivers for a future utilising high recycled content. Most branded manufacturers view their producer responsibility obligations as a tax they have to pay for doing business in that sector.
The focus needs to switch to ‘priming the pump’ at the point where polymers are becoming available and making sure that they are going back into industries that are manufacturing products in the UK. It needs to be demand-led. Manufacturers using that low-carbon, sustainable flow of material should, in my view, be getting some positive encouragement to do so. For example, this could happen by offsetting their obligation to pay for the collection of recycling by demonstrating an equal weight of recycled content used in new products.
Manufacturers would benefit considerably for every tonne of closed-loop recycled material used, and this would encourage that all-important circular flow of materials. It would also encourage the design of fewer unrecyclable goods and drive the manufacture of higher yielding products when they reach the end of their useful lives.
The circular economy is here – we must encourage it to turn more efficiently.
Keith Freegard is director of Axion Recycling. He will be speaking at the Recycling the ‘Unrecyclable’ conference on 2 June 2015 at BPF House.