Chris Collier, commercial director of CK Group, a leading provider of recycled plastic regrind, addresses the long-running question of why some recycled plastic materials are still being exported… and quashes at least one myth in the process!
The debate about whether the UK should recover all the recycled plastic waste it generates to be re-manufactured in the UK back into end products is long running.
Positions and views vary, though in the main I have observed that these views depend on the commentator’s position in the supply chain (two extremes being a sole UK reprocessing operator or a sole exporter), their ethical, political and economic bias and also whether they have first hand experience of dealing with buyers of recycled plastics in overseas markets.
For the purposes of this article I am simply going to stick to the facts, albeit they are as I see them, so one could argue I am still giving an opinion, but here goes!
The UK produces far more redundant plastic, end of life plastic and plastic packaging waste through commercial operations such as plastics manufacturing, food production, distribution and domestic plastic recycling operations than it can currently re-use to make products out of recycled plastic. This is fact because the UK is now predominantly a service-based economy and we quite simply do not have the capacity to process all that we collect – only about 50% as it goes.
This issue itself sparks its own debate about our lost manufacturing capability, whether more should be done to use plastic that is attractive to recycle and whether the government recycling targets are realistic and achievable etcetera, etcetera!
Simply Not Suitable
As we all know, some plastics are simply not suitable for recycling at present, whether this is because collection, transport and processing costs make it commercially uneconomic for recycling, or because having reached its end of life state it is now contaminated or in a condition or format that simply cannot be re-recycled, or through manufacturing processes it renders them unable to be recycled.
Collection rates of plastic for recycling continue to increase and be a success story. This is through either good commercial sense or government set recovery targets. With volume being collected increasing (and we already know reprocessing capacity at around 50% of that figure at present) as collection grows so does the problem of disposal. We have several choices – put down massively more capacity instantly, collect it then send it back to landfill, or export! Export therefore is critical to aid increased collection, critical. Cease, hinder or prevent it at your peril. With the government target of a 5% increase this year in recovery upon us, this will only magnify the situation.
It must be absolutely right that everyone fully supports a strong and vibrant UK manufacturing sector, absolutely. But, doing this in isolation and to the detriment of export is totally counterproductive to ensuring the increase in collection and ultimately the increase in UK reprocessing capacity itself.
And so the debate continues, but the harsh reality of why some plastics are, and will or even must continue to be exported, are as follows:
- The UK simply does not have the manufacturing capacity to re-use all recycled plastic it collects.
- The UK is now predominantly a services economy. Hence if we don’t export the plastic will inevitably end up in landfill until such time as there are robust long term markets in UK and these commercially are sound
- Some overseas end markets are able in a controlled and sound environmental way to process materials we can’t or won’t recycle.
- The viability of these overseas end markets will inevitably shift back to the UK as technological advancements replace a lower cost labour environments and at the same time allow the recovery and processing of materials that historically could not be recycled domestically.
The myth that poor quality plastic waste is being exported to overseas markets to just be dumped in landfill is just that – a myth!
The CK Group has a wide network in UK, Europe, Asia and the Far East, and let me assure you, very stringent regulatory checks and controls take place to ensure everything is compliant. This includes a full audit trial of all end users for products we export.
Many of the commentators I mentioned earlier focus solely on the UK. Many of these commentators also believe or at least preach the “dross” is exported as the end markets in such places as the Far East are not sophisticated enough and therefore quality standards are low.
Let me say from my own experience, this could not be further from the truth and Far East customers are among the most stringent we have. A claim from a customer in the Far East is significantly more painful than one from the UK let me assure you, so ignore quality at your peril!
One last point I would make is on the current debate over the “level playing field” for the value of PRN’s over PeRN’s. I do have a degree of sympathy for this viewpoint, but, not significant. Many are saying there should be a massive differential but I do not support or subscribe to this.
I can agree with a few % differential, but some of the figures I have heard banded about are unbelievable and nothing but commercialism. The UK government and the EA will not allow materials over a few % to even be exported, so what possible justification is there for a differential more than this? Equally, many claim standards of end users abroad are not in the least comparable with those in the UK – I wonder how many cutting edge companies in Europe would feel about this statement!