1 February, 2018

The consumer society thrives on a huge range of cheap, versatile plastic products, many designed for single use and spanning a range of polymer types. But such a variety makes plastic recycling hugely confusing for householders. The nuances of which plastics can or cannot be recycled is a tricky message to communicate to the public, and is further confused by regional collection variations and the influx of ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ plastics.

Every council in England, Wales and Northern Ireland already offers some type of plastic recycling and Scotland is not far behind at 97%. Of these outside Scotland, 98.2% offer plastic bottle recycling and 73.7% mixed plastic recycling. But household recycling levels for plastics remain low. Current figures show we are capturing 58% of recyclable plastic bottles compared with 90% in both Denmark and Germany. The UK recycles only 32% of plastic pots, tubs and trays. And these figures have plateaued, with only a nine percentage point increase seen in plastic bottle collections in the past nine years. A recent study by Recoup showed that budget cuts are eroding local authority spending for both waste and recycling collections and communications delivery.

A focus on consistency between collection schemes – most recently seen in the Government’s 25-year environment plan – is adding momentum to the harmonisation of recycling schemes. This can only be a good thing in terms of clear messaging for households and building a consistent supply of material for the reprocessing sector. But the growth in use of bioplastics – those made from plant-based materials rather than fossil fuels – adds further potential confusion. Some bioplastics are biodegradable – which means they break down under specific conditions. Most bioplastics currently on the market are not biodegradable. Importantly, those that are biodegradable cannot be recycled using conventional mechanical recycling techniques. Some biodegradable plastics are easily mistaken for, and mixed with, conventional plastics which results in contamination of recyclate streams and biological treatment facilities. The market share of these materials is small but it is growing so cannot be ignored.

Global changes are also affecting local authority plastics collections, with China banning the import of post-consumer plastic scrap. Larger waste management operators have been putting contingency measures in place for some time, but smaller operators in this complex value chain – and councils themselves – might be caught off-guard, unable to sell waste plastics at any price, particularly poor-quality material. The UK and continental Europe (where reprocessing capacity has been steadily growing) can absorb some of this extra material, with the balance already going to countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. But who will be considering the net environmental and social impact of materials reaching these destinations? After all, Chinese concerns about the standards of local recycling industries was one of the drivers behind its import restrictions.

There are two ways to address the plastic recycling issue. First, we can reduce the amount of plastic being used in the first place. Second, we can seek technological solutions to make our recycling more effective. Both are gathering momentum. Plastic films, for example, have long been a problematic element of the household waste stream, because recyclability is affected by the material utilised (polyethylene or polypropylene), and the colouring, printing and layering (single or multi). But WRAP estimates that 17% of local authorities are now collecting plastic film, an increase of four percentage points since 2012-13. Films are increasingly included in plastic bag collection points at supermarkets, and more councils are tolerating the material in dry kerbside recycling collections, even if not actively promoted.

The next big challenge will be to create solutions to tackle biodegradable plastics: identifying them in recycled plastics streams, and improving international standards and regulation. Concerns around the actual biodegradability of plastics have been doing the rounds since 2010 so regulation in this field is long overdue. This month the EU said it would seek to “restrict the use” of oxo-biodegradable plastics. Increased awareness levels and technological advances in plastics recycling in 2017 have created a strong platform for change in 2018. It is up to the waste sector to maintain the momentum and work with governments, the media and the public to bring this serious environmental pollutant under control.

This article by David Lerpiniere, Principal Consultant at  Resource Futures, first appeared in MRW.