Plastic film has long been a bête noir for local authority recycling. Whether it’s plastic bags and film wrapping getting tangled in sorting machinery, or finding a market for the low-value material, Dr Sarah Kemp, Consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting, says plastic film poses ‘headaches’ that local authorities could seemingly do without.
With local authorities struggling to work out how, collectively, they’re going to achieve a 65% recycling rate by 2035, plastic film is a material stream that councils can no longer afford to ignore.
UK-wide waste composition data undertaken by Eunomia for WRAP shows that plastic film makes up 6.4% of kerbside residual waste, with just 7% of all 311,000 tonnes of plastic film put on the market in 2019 collected for recycling by 55 local authorities, according to RECOUP.
As the figures show, that’s an awful lot of material not being collected for recycling – let alone actually being recycled – and ending up in residual waste streams destined for landfill or energy recovery.
Plastic film has been emblematic of the difficulty of extending kerbside collections to material streams that are challenging to make economically feasible under the current set of incentives.
Increasing the capture rate of plastic film to 50% of the amount currently in kerbside residual waste could boost England’s recycling rate by around 1.5 percentage points, a helpful step towards 65%. Defra appears to have acknowledged this, proposing a requirement to collect plastic films at the kerbside by no later than 2026/27 in its EPR consultation.
But what does it actually take to recycle plastic film effectively? The initial challenge is how to collect it. Should it be collected as a completely separate stream? Or do you collect it mixed with other plastics (and perhaps other materials, too) and rely on further sorting later?
Taking the former approach means either a separate pass or finding an unused compartment on a vehicle. An under-chassis cage might be an option, but many authorities are already using these for textiles, WEEE or other smaller material streams.
The latter course would require extra sorting equipment. For multi-stream systems that use more rudimentary plastic sorting systems, and there may be a shortage of space for installing additional equipment. For MRFs, the issue is likely to be the business case for investment in equipment to separate a small tonnage of material and the knock-on effect this could have on gate fees – although under EPR, this may be less of an issue than it would be today.
A small number of local authorities are already collecting plastic film as part of their kerbside collections. Mid Devon Council, for example, collects plastic bags as part of their multi-stream collection, while the London boroughs of Camden and Islington collect plastic bags and magazine film within their commingled collections.
Exeter City Council has one of the most comprehensive film collections, including all polythene or plastic film and wrap, including bubble wrap. Exeter’s recycling is collected commingled and sorted at their own MRF, which uses a good deal of hand sorting.
Exeter City Council has one of the most comprehensive film collections, including all polythene or plastic film and wrap, including bubble wrap.
The baled film outputs are then sent to a film sorting plant to segregate the material by polymer type and colour, before it is recycled into plastic bags that are delivered back to Exeter Council. Exeter even works with other authorities, such as Mid Devon, to sort their plastics and sell the material through their channels.
Extending collections to cover plastic film more widely will undoubtedly bring additional costs, and the upcoming DRS, EPR for packaging and collections consistency policies will impact how these are addressed. The DRS will open up space on collection vehicles that could potentially be used to collect film.
Meanwhile, the additional collection and MRF gate fees that might arise from including plastic film in mixed streams will be covered – for packaging films at least – by EPR funding. Defra says that around a third of the 2.4 million tonnes of plastic packaging consists of films and flexibles, and without widespread collections it will be difficult to achieve the 56% target set for plastic packaging for 2030.
Defra has given a clear signal through its recent consultations that plastic film will need to be collected in the future. However, the challenges facing plastic film recycling are not inconsiderable.
To overcome them, local authorities will need support to arrive at the most effective collection systems, which will require some experimentation and the development of best practice. For those that decide to mix film with other materials, sorting infrastructure will then need to come on stream in time to manage the new mixture.
Unless this work begins soon, it will be difficult for councils to be ready for the new obligation to collect films in 2026/27. That may mean pilot studies commencing prior to the introduction of EPR in 2023, which is likely to need government support.
Unless this work begins soon, it will be difficult for councils to be ready for the new obligation to collect films in 2026/27
Once EPR is introduced, the drivers for what gets recycled will change and no longer deter collections of plastic film, though there will be a new process of negotiation between producers, local authorities and private waste operators that all parties will need to get used to.
Plastic film has been emblematic of the difficulty of extending kerbside collections to material streams that are challenging to make economically feasible under the current set of incentives. It’s a material that we know can and should be recycled, but like cling film tangled in a sizing screen, it’s been a knotty problem.
The combination of the new requirement to sort and EPR funding provide the motivation and resources to solve it, but we’re still to answer all of the questions about exactly what the solution should look like.