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Plastic Waste Recycling – Accelerating Performance

December 13, 2018

Plastic Waste Recycling – Accelerating Performance

ISB Global Plastic Waste Recycling UK
ISB Global Plastic Waste Recycling UK

China’s ban on waste imports, coupled with concerns about Brexit negotiations and the public’s growing awareness about plastic waste recycling and the environment, will change the way the UK manages its waste in the future, argues Jonathan Ballantine.

In the first part of this two-part special feature, EA’s Jonathan Ballantine catches up with leading experts in the UK resources management and recycling sector to assess the current situation for plastic waste recycling and to identify some of the main barriers that have thus far limited genuine recycling. The second part will provide a range of stakeholder perspectives on Defra’s soon-to-be-released Resources & Waste plan and how this could change the sector’s dynamics.

In January, the European Commission launched the EU’s Plastics Strategy, and challenged members states to a ‘race to the top’ on plastics reduction. The UK government responded by proposing to ban many forms of single-use plastics and to place a tax on new plastic packaging in efforts to tackle waste and encourage domestic recycling.

Policy-makers’ enthusiasm for plastic reduction is commendable, even if it only stems from China’s decision to ban foreign waste imports from the start of this year. As the world’s largest importer of waste, China’s decision to close its doors has sent shockwaves through the international waste markets, and exposes many flaws, and years of underinvestment, in UK domestic recycling. Figures from HMRC state that nearly two-thirds of our plastic waste (approximately 400,000 tonnes per annum) was being exported to China. Whereas figures from Defra in relation to recycling, claim that the UK collects about 475,000 tonnes of plastic waste. So the amount of plastic waste that was being exported to China is very close to the amount being ‘recycled’ from household collections.

Current situation

Plastic waste recycling is not quite what it seems. From the outside many believe that their carefully separated, household plastic waste is being turned into new plastic bottles or, at the very least, into some kind of industrial product. However, those working in the industry understand what really happens and believe that the UK recycling system is not fit for purpose.

We can trace the roots of the problem back to government policy around waste strategy in the 90s. According to Phil Conran, CEO of waste specialist 360 Environmental, “In short, the PRN [Packaging Recovery Note] system today is designed for achieving weight-based recycling targets at least cost and incentivises the exporting of plastic waste over investment in domestic reprocessing.” This then explains why when Chinese authorities decided to stop plastic waste from entering the country it created a recycling crisis in the UK. But this was the effect not the cause.

It’s hard to comprehend that an advanced nation such as the UK could be so reliant on predominantly one strategy (namely export) and one end-market (namely China) for so long. Putting aside for one moment ethical and environmental considerations, judged purely from a risk management standpoint this borders on negligence, even if it was very cost effective. In the short-term the implications of the China ban is a major risk to all stakeholders across the value chain – even more so as neighbouring markets such as Malaysia and Thailand begin to close their ports to our waste.

The UK recycling system is a complex chain comprised of a diverse range of stakeholders: manufactures and retailers (producers), consumers, local authorities, resource management companies, re-processors and exporters. Under the current system producers pay about 10% of the costs for the collection, sorting and recycling of obligated items (such as plastic, paper, glass and metals), leaving LAs to pick up the remaining costs.

A poll conducted by the Local Government Association (LGA) earlier this year revealed that packaging recycling is costing local councils up to £500,000 a year more following China’s ban. Prior to the ban LAs would receive £60 per tonne of plastic waste, whereas now they may have to pay for it to be taken away. This much-needed revenue was vital for financing municipal collection and sorting. Lee Marshall, CEO of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), acknowledges that the China ban adds fuel to the debate around producer responsibility, and puts the onus on producers to provide greater financial support to local authorities by paying for the full costs of recycling: “Producers need to understand that local councils cannot keep subsidising waste collections and they must realise that they have been getting away with paying far too less for far too long.”

Unlike in the UK, in Europe it is common for producers to pay up to 80% of the costs, thus many of the producer companies are large multinationals and will be used to paying higher costs in countries like Germany. “Down the line both retailers and manufacturers accept that their recycling costs will increase,” states Conran. A point that was shared by Adam Read, external affairs director at waste management company Suez: “Producers realise this and are generally willing to play their role in a new EPR [extended producer responsibility] led world of resources (not waste).” [Read was also the former waste practice director for consultancy Ricardo Energy & Environment, until he moved to the other side of the fence last year (EA 10-Aug-17).]

The situation as it stands also poses significant reputational risks for producers. As custodians of major brands the reputational risks of branded packaging ending up washed up on a beach, a Malaysian rubbish dump or inside the stomach of an endangered marine species are obvious. Greenpeace, in partnership with the Break Free from Plastic movement, orchestrated a global ocean clean-up and brand audit spanning 42 countries. Over 187,000 pieces of plastic were collected and audited; the most common brands found were Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Danone.

As our world becomes increasingly more connected it is in the producer’s interest for their product packaging to be safely disposed of with minimum environmental impact. Many retailers and manufacturers want the same thing and have signed-up to WRAP’s Plastic Pact that was launched in April, with signatories promising to ensure at least 70 percent of plastic packaging is effectively recycled.

Boosting the performance of plastic waste recycling in the UK will take bold leadership from government. Defra has repeatedly promised to address all these issues in its forthcoming Resources & Waste plan. But while we wait for Defra, let’s take a look at some of the stubborn barriers that have limited the genuine recycling of plastic waste in the UK:

(i) Product complexity/diversity

As no consideration is given to the end-of-life phase of plastic packaging it is not surprising that, up until now, little consideration has been given to the design of plastic packaging. From interviews with local authorities and recycling experts one of the biggest factors for both the low quality and quantity of recyclates lies in the complexity and diversity of packaging forms and formats. The high complexity (multi-layers) and diversity (format sizes) of product packaging significantly impacts the efficiency and effectiveness of municipal collection and sorting.

In today’s society we are drawn and attracted to technological breakthroughs, and the packaging industry is no different, but sometimes common sense can be more effective. An integrated approach between all stakeholders on optimal packaging forms and formats that don’t impose significant challenges to sorting and recycling facilities could be a quick win in delivering ambitious targets.

(ii) Packaging waste regs

There is growing concern by all stakeholders that packaging waste regulations in the UK are not fit for purpose, and that the PRN system is in need of urgent reform. Mike Tregent, who works for the Environment Agency and is a member of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, explains that targets are set both in the EU Waste Framework Directive – now Circular Economy Package (CEP) – and under Producer Responsibility regulations: “The waste framework directive acts more widely than producer responsibility, and although it offers equal incentive through the PRN system, research by the National Audit Office found there to be a skew in favour of exports,” he says.

This view was supported by Mary Creagh, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee: “PRNs are intended to make companies do their bit for recycling, but there is significant concern that they are distorting the market in favour of exports rather than reprocessing in the UK.”

Many in the industry argue that the system is open to fraud and incentivises waste exports over domestic processing. Both government and industry have acknowledged the need for reform. According to Conran: “The government’s Advisory Committee on Packaging has recommended three options to fulfill CEP’s requirement for producers to pay the ‘full net cost’ of recycling.” This was echoed by Read, who says: “New EPR models are under detailed discussion and should form part of the consultation this month.”

The UK’s leading compliance scheme, Valpak, has also published the PackFlow 2025 report, which outlines how the PRN system could be reformed. Environment secretary Michael Gove is engaging with industry to review waste policies, of which recommendations will be incorporated into the forthcoming Resources &Waste plan.

(iii) Quality

The primary focus of plastic waste recycling has been on collecting large amounts of plastic waste packaging from household collections, even though low-quality waste has limited usability. Typically in households there is one rubbish bin for plastic waste. For example, in my house we have to put all of our plastic waste into yellow bin bags/yellow wheelie bins. This means I am mixing orange juice bottles, yoghurt pots and plastic bags, which impacts the quality of collection schemes as different types of plastics cannot be recycled together. If we are going to increase the quality of plastic waste, efforts on multiple fronts are going to be required.

(iv) Lack of certainty (policy/market)

China’s ban on waste imports coupled with concerns about Brexit negotiations as well as the public´s growing awareness about plastics are changing the way the UK must manage its waste in the future. These converging factors mean that domestic infrastructure must be updated and increased in order to effectively manage our waste streams. However, new waste infrastructure can take years to build and requires large capital investments. “We don´t lack investment, we lack certainty,” explained Read.

Shifting away from our current model towards resource productivity/circularity will provide numerous benefits to the UK economy such as greater stability, job creation and carbon emission reductions. Tregent says: “There is now a great opportunity for new intervention by government to provide policy certainty and develop incentives in line with the waste hierarchy and circular economy.”

(v) End-users

According to a report by Deloitte SustainabilityBlueprint for plastics packaging waste: Quality sorting & recycling, demand for recyclates by the packaging industry in 2014 across the top five European countries was only 4% (705 kT). Total demand for recyclates across all sectors was 7% (2,100 kT).

These figures show that stimulating end-users is key to accelerating the performance of plastic waste recycling in the UK. However, a survey conducted by the European Plastics Converters showed that the quality and steadiness of supply is a key barrier in the use of recycled plastics. Chicken and egg scenario.

Constant supplies rely on the performance of each step of the recycling chain, thus improving the quality of household collections is critical and increases the output of recycling facilities (at the lowest cost).

(vi) Lack of consumer behaviour empowerment

Consumers – citizens – play a crucial role in the management of plastic waste recycling. Most people are trying their best to recycle plastic but inconsistencies in collection methods creates confusion as to what can and can’t be recycled. According to BBC analysis and WRAP data, each council collects their plastic recycling differently, and there are 39 different sets of rules for what can be put into plastic recycling collections: “Most collect bottles; others collect pots, tubs and trays, while some collect a much wider range.”

It is estimated that household waste recycling rate in the UK is around 44%, according to Recycling Today. However, the next challenge should be to boost quality. Understanding what motivates consumers to recycle is key to accelerating the transition to a circular economy. Participation in recycling can be confusing because information regarding accepted materials is inconsistent from one community to the next. Thus any increases in participation are only beneficial if the feedstock can be accepted by municipal recycling programmes.

Retailers and brand owners are uniquely positioned to drive this behaviour change by encouraging consumers to recycle materials at the end-of-life phase. The introduction of recycling labels could facilitate this. In addition, many producers seek recovered materials as feedstock and have the opportunity to boost relationships with downstream partners. “As producers shift towards greater circularity they will want the materials back to feed their next batch of packaging…hence recycled content targets, taxes and an EPR system that only lets money flow if the materials are of high-quality enough to make it back into the manufacturing process is critical,” explains Read.

Integrated approach

Accelerating the performance of plastic waste recycling in the UK requires an integrated approach to address many of the aforementioned barriers. It’s going to be an uncertain time for the sector in the short-term as local authorities and waste management firms cope with changing markets and evolving contracts.

A shift towards high-quality waste in the mid-term will help to find new markets and meet China’s strict requirements. However, for the longer term, the benefits of the Chinese ban will likely see the sector move from a push to a pull model, and should be welcomed by government and industry as an opportunity to develop domestic markets, to de-risk UK recycling from a reliance on one strategy/one end-market, and, last but not least, to deliver environmental benefits.

Recycled from Environment Analyst