I was recently invited to speak at the Recoup annual conference (see box) which, being the organisation’s 25th anniversary, was an honour.
My subject was the past, present and future for plastic recycling in the UK.
The past 15 years was a fairly easy subject: the UK collected significantly more plastic recyclate (around 11% compound increase a year) but most of that was low-grade material that, in the main, UK reprocessors could not take.
This is generalising, I know, but I think it is accurate, taking into account some sector differences. During that time, export was the outlet, without which material would have been landfilled or possibly used in energy-from-waste plants.
In the more recent past and present, the picture for plastics is changing, mostly through advancing technology. It means that UK re-processors such as the CK Group can compete with low-cost Far East markets and sort or add value to materials which, in many cases, could not be done before.
In the past five to six years or so, UK re-processors have consumed more and more material. Today, some 60-70% more tonnage per year is being processed domestically than at the start of that period. For the 10 years before, the UK flatlined.
Circular economy and closed loop are big discussion points today, and the industry has many excellent examples of plastic recycling leading the way in these areas. A few examples are wheelie bin recycling and recycling of rigid plastics such as trays or crates.
Although the growth is very encouraging, all is not well in the sector, with many high-profile business failures. At least an element of this must be attributed to market fundamentals and our industry operating in a global commodity- based cyclical sector, where prices vary greatly and external factors beyond our control affect supply and demand.
If a business model has even an element of its hands tied behind its back in terms of fixed buying or selling prices, it must cause issues. The call from some, demanding high long-term commodity prices, even fixed ones, to support recovery is fatally flawed in my view – the polluter must pay and businesses must adapt to cyclical changes to stay alive and compete. Markets or end users always find another way if they are not competitive – look at oil prices as just one example.
And so to the future: technology should help to keep more materials closer to home in the UK and Europe. I hope there will be more emphasis on designing for recycling such as single polymer caps, and more of the ‘polluter pays’ principle so that when markets drop, recycling can continue, albeit not so profitably. I believe that floating market-based commodity pricing contracts would work well in plastics recycling.
Retailers will help us by demanding and specifying at least a minimum percentage of recycled content in their buying protocols. And the Government must lead by example and set at least a minimum percentage of recycled content in the contracts it awards.
While we are processing more plastic recyclate domestically, which is great news and must continue, the UK is still too reliant on export markets. That reliance is changing and, hopefully, reducing, but until we can consume all we collect, it is still vital. It should also be noted that export is not just to the Far East – Europe is a big place!
Recoup annual conference highlights
Issues raised at the conference included whether there should be mandatory recyclate content in goods, a call for strong leadership and direction from the EU, and a demand for increased action from Defra to match the ongoing work in Scotland and Wales on resources and recycling.
A leaders panel tackled the question of whether plastic is a sustainable resource. Richard Kirkman, head of technology at Veolia, gave his view of what the future might look like if advances in technology become a commercial reality.
Sandy Rodger, lead of Project Mainstream at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, outlined the need for aligned household collection systems among councils, saying that the current situation leads to confusion for householders. It was agreed this is the one ‘universal USB plug’ needed to provide the foundations to move towards a circular economy society.
Stuart Foster, Recoup chief executive, said the industry remained some way off from joined-up working and true partnerships, and the talk of recent years had to be matched by action.
Chris Collier is commercial director for CK Polymers