Plastic problems mount up

Businesses and politicians want to recycle more plastic in the UK, but with policy plans under threat and oil going cheap this won’t be easy. By David Burrows.

In the good old days, dealing with our plastic rubbish used to be so easy. Collect it, seal it up and ship it somewhere else was the go-to strategy. “Never has a faster buck been made than packaging up our waste and shipping it abroad,” an industry source once told me.

Whether it was polypropylene (PP), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or any of the other myriad polymers used to package goods didn’t matter. We could even mix it together (or in some cases send it heavily contaminated because checks of the shipments were few and far between). Where it eventually ended up wasn’t really that important either because it was still classed as “recycled” and counted towards national targets.

Most of it, of course, ended up in China – a country that for years willingly hoovered up everyone else’s waste. Figures published in the journal Science Advances show just how reliant the world was on one country: around 45% (106m tonnes) of plastic waste exported between 1988 and 2016 ended up in China (to put this into perspective, the biggest importer in Europe was the Netherlands, which took 2.7% of global exports).

But everyone’s trash didn’t turn out to be China’s treasure. The Chinese got fed up with sorting all this Yang Laji (foreign garbage) and closed their borders to imports of 24 kinds of solid waste, including plastic. The reasons were outlined in its note to the World Trade Organisation: “We found that large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials. This polluted China's environment seriously. To protect China's environmental interests and people's health, we urgently adjust the imported solid wastes list, and forbid the import of solid wastes that are highly polluted.”

Given that the UK sent 2.7m tonnes of plastic there between 2012 and 2017, some foresaw a problem. Others didn’t. “I think we do have the capacity [to treat it here],” suggested Michael Gove, the former environment secretary. However, Gove also admitted that he hadn’t actually given the issue “sufficient thought”). Had he done so, he would have realised that the UK had nowhere near the level of capacity required.

Two years on and the issues have not gone away. There are new policies in the making but some are less impressive than they seem, others have already been pushed back due to the pandemic and there is pressure on ministers to delay others.

First, let’s consider the powers in the Environment Bill to “stop the exports of polluting plastic waste to developing countries”. These appear to be a flagship policy in the bill, but non-OECD countries are already taking far less of our waste than they did, say, three or four years ago, according to figures collated by 360 Environmental and published in the journal Ends Report.

And just because a country is in the OECD doesn’t mean it has a track record in effective waste management (Turkey, for example, has been taking loads more of our plastic, but looking at 2018 figures managed to recycle or compost just 10% of its own waste, against an OECD average of 36%). “I don’t think we can be confident that some of these countries can or are processing it to [the same standards we have],” Hazel Akester, programme officer for marine plastics at Fauna & Flora International, told me.

Second, there is the new tax on the production and import of all plastic packaging that doesn’t include at least 30% recycled content (currently under consultation). This is in essence a fine idea but a report published this month by Recoup suggests that infrastructure needs to be built quick smart if there’s any hope of meeting demand with supply. There is plenty of sorting capacity, but “significant shortfalls” when it comes to reprocessing capacity, the charity said. “The UK’s reprocessing capacity may need to increase by 100% to meet 30% recycled content in all household plastic packaging placed on the market, and by over 200% to meet that target for food-grade rigid household plastic packaging.”

Reform of the packaging producer responsibility system, another key policy change, will be critical in providing both investment and the confidence to invest. Whether the tax, reform of producer responsibility and the export ban will be enough to tip the balance in favour of producing plastics that are easily recycled back into plastic is far from a fait accompli.

At the time of writing, a barrel of oil fetches only $30. This makes virgin plastic a very attractive proposition and recyclers are already feeling the pinch. Earlier this month, the European plastics recycling industry closed production: “The major problems are the lack of the demand due to the closure of converting plants and the record low prices of virgin plastics as well as the decreased activity globally,” noted industry representatives Plastics Recyclers Europe.

The next few months could certainly test food industry commitments to meet self-imposed targets to include higher levels of recycled content in their packaging (especially for some packaging types where achieving recycled content that meets the standards for food contact are extremely difficult). Nestlé is investing $2bn to kick-start the market for recycled content, while other big brands are investing in new tech to help them recycle more plastic and meet their own demand for recycled content. But they are some way off their targets: Nestlé wants to hit 15% recycled content by 2025 but the current level is 2%; Pepsi’s target is 25% by 2025 and is currently at 3%. When you use 1.7m and 2.3m tonnes of plastic packaging a year respectively, these targets mean sourcing huge amounts of additional recycled plastic.

So, will brands put the brakes on these packaging commitments as they look to save money and accelerate production as part of their post-Covid bounceback plans? Arguably, sales for those involved in the grocery trade are bouncing along nicely despite the pandemic; but, as some have been warning, production during a pandemic comes at a cost.

The other concern is that other instruments designed to improve the quality of recycling streams, boost national reprocessing, limit export and increase the use of recycled plastic have already been pushed back due to Covid-19. Scotland’s deposit return scheme, for example, will now start in July 2022 rather than April 2021 (the target for England and Wales is 2023). This might offer industry some breathing space but can we put off dealing with our plastic export problem any longer?

1 Response

  1. It seems that the only realistic way to rapidly match supply with demand for recycled plastics and not end up with a mountain of plastic garbage is to drastically reduce the amount of plastic packaging. It does not “protect” food if it works as a reservoir for coronavirus — unless the packaging is treated with some kind of antimicrobial finish.

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