UK recycles a third less plastic than reported

The UK government is likely to be overestimating the volume of plastic recycling by as much as a third, a new report has found.

The study by environmental consultancy Eunomia said that although official statistics claimed that 39% of the 2.26m tonnes of plastic packaging was recycled in 2015, the real recycling rate is likely to have been nearer 30%.

It explained that the discrepancy could be due to differences in weight between material that is placed on the market in a dry, clean state and free from extraneous material such as labels, to when that same packaging is collected when the weight is likely to be inflated by the inclusion of moisture and contaminants.

Another possible reason is that official data on the quantity of plastic packaging placed on the market is derived from industry data rather than being produced independently. The report says that in the UK businesses cover at most 10% of the cost of providing the household recycling service they rely on to deliver compliance under the producer responsibility system. It adds that the lower the figure for the packaging placed on the market is, the lower the amount of material that needs to be recycled in order to meet their obligations.

Eunomia chairman Dominic Hogg explained that in this context it was not surprising to find that the UK’s recycling rate for plastics was not as good as has been claimed. “The scheme supports the reporting of compliance at low cost, rather than achieving high quality recycling of plastic packaging. The disparities between datasets indicate that the existing scheme gives a weak foundation on which to base the recycling figures.”

Greenpeace said the report showed the packaging industry has been claiming high figures for bottle plastic recycling “in their last ditch attempt to undermine a deposit return scheme”.

However, Vaplac, which provides waste management services to businesses, told BBC News that it was confident in the accuracy of estimates of the total packaging placed on the market which it said were based on “very detailed and comprehensive data representing over 50% of UK packaged goods sales”.

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