RECOUP’s Stuart Foster discusses what it will take to make plastics a “truly circular” resource. Whatever the solution, he says recycling will play a key role…
Published in the CIWM Journal November 2013
The autumn exhibition and conference season is well underway, and I am now back at my desk after the latest outing – the LARAC annual conference. My presentation on the opportunities, challenges and barriers to increasing plastic recycling in 2014 and beyond covered many of the same issues raised before by RECOUP. At least this provides consistency in terms of the challenges, even if some question why the same plastic issues seem to crop up again and again, rather than being resolved.
Of course, there are the usual hot topics that includes plastic markets and export, the complexities around plastics, recycling targets and the PRN system, and yet again some questions over the different nation-specific approaches to policy and strategy including that word “unambitious”.
“Whilst striving to hit targets, it is fundamental to ensure that the collection and handling systems are affordable, sustainable and that the material provided to reprocessors is of an acceptable quality”
But the viability of UK plastics packaging recycling targets has attracted much attention in the past year. Increasing recycling is the right approach and the targets are achievable in theory. But the question is, will we achieve them, given that we are nearing the end of 2013 already and there is still a critical need to significantly increase collection of bottles and develop strong markets for the ever-increasing amounts of pots, tubs and trays being collected? We need approximately 100 000 tonnes of additional material from households each year for recycling to hit the increasing targets; this roughly equates to one extra bottle and pot each week from each UK household.
Whilst striving to hit targets, it is fundamental to ensure that the collection and handling systems are affordable, sustainable and that the material provided to reprocessors is of an acceptable quality. It would be great to have a strong UK plastic reprocessor base to reduce reliance on export, or at least find a fairer way of applying the plastic PRN so it does not artificially favour export.
But actually the UK as a whole has been comfortably ahead of the mandatory EU plastic packaging recycling target (22.5 percent) for some time now. So when we talk about being ambitious, should we look wider than our own governments for leadership? Possibly yes, but be careful what you wish for.
The Latest Data
The latest data from Plastics Europe yet again shows that the UK is languishing in the plastic packaging recycling league, although I always draw attention to the fact that the nine countries that achieve minimal plastic to landfill do so by recycling 30-50 percent of the plastic packaging, and sending the rest through EFW systems. Also many achieve their plastic packaging recycling levels at substantially higher costs to the supply chain when compared to the UK.
“If the principles of resource security are used to develop policies and plans, it will lay the foundations for long term sustainable growth and create a pathway to a successful green economy”
The increased dialogue around plastic recycling at European level is gaining momentum after the green paper on plastics was released earlier this year. Plastic Recyclers Europe suggests 62 percent plastic recycling is achievable by 2020 in their latest study. EU discussions on plastics indicate landfill bans, specific targets for collection and sorting, mandatory criteria for recyclability, and the overarching aim of 75 percent of plastic packaging recycled by 2020 are all on the agenda. If the current direction develops into full-scale directives and policies, it could give ambitious a new meaning, and goes well beyond the boundaries of current EU best practice, infrastructure and UK recycling targets.
But maybe that is just what we need. There is a necessary shift towards better long-term use of resources and the development of circular economies. Creating a better understanding of the true impact of resource use, and making more efficient use of the resources that we have should lead to a stronger plastic value chain in the longer term. If the principles of resource security are used to develop policies and plans, it will lay the foundations for long term sustainable growth and create a pathway to a successful green economy. Plastic has the potential to be a truly circular resource, and recycling will play a key role.