The anticipation of development and change in plastic and packaging recycling did not come to fruition in 2016. Instead, it was an unpredictable year intensified by Brexit, a relaxing of UK targets, further reprocessor casualties and a raft of discussions on wider issues such as litter and extended producer responsibility.
So why still the optimism?
The level of interest and growing understanding of resource efficiency and the role of recycling in packaging circular economy ambitions should leave us in no doubt that there will be change. It is the scale and speed at which it is achieved that is not known, and how different it will look from the approaches we have today.
What we do know is that the UK and many others across Europe have been comfortably ahead of the outdated EU plastic packaging recycling targets for some time now. It is unclear how any circular economy package from Europe will now influence the UK in future years. The separate UK recycling target for plastics packaging has been extended out to 2020, requiring around 1.1 million tonnes of plastic packaging to be recycled by that time, which is expected to achieve a 48% recycling rate. What this doesn’t account for is the recent flat-lining and even reversing of overall recycling figures, in England at least, which is amplifying the debate around extended producer responsibility.
More radical approaches to producer responsibility will be needed alongside innovation, but this has to be a realistic approach with a review of where current taxes, fees and support are focused. The current broad network of government and corporate funded groups involved in this area are effectively a form of extended responsibility activities, but is the resource and funding best channelled down these routes to increase recycling and reduce litter?
The issue with any voluntary EPR activities is that it allows some to sit back and do the bare minimum. For plastic packaging this can mean paying a very nominal amount per tonne towards recycling activities when PRN values are low.
Finally, government has a responsibility to provide ambitious legislation and strategies to provide the right conditions to achieve resource and recycling goals.
More consumer responsibility also must be part of the solution with ‘pay as you throw’ and extending littering penalties being some obvious options alongside education and behaviour change programmes.
Recycling and circular opportunities
Ongoing work from the Advisory Committee on Packaging continues to review the opportunities, alongside work initiated by Defra on improving consistency – of collection systems, consumer engagement and packaging. Plastic is a key material in this activity and there is room for improvement. RECOUP guidance on designing packaging for recycling has been available and promoted for over 10 years; the challenge is to get the right people to use it.
The general direction is clear: better resource efficiency and conservation through the development of a green economy. Some have concluded that plastic is an ideal material to demonstrate that it is possible and profitable to move towards a circular economy model with recycling as a key element. It is now up
to stakeholders to prove it and deliver on a practical level.
On one hand, there is concern over the quality of plastic supplied to reprocessors, and on the other there are added considerations of higher targets and exceptional market conditions. At the same time, there is a need for more collection to satisfy end-market demand (and targets) with questions over the current market opportunities for some non-bottle rigid and household film plastics.
Research into the more challenging plastic fractions has continued, with recycling and recovery solutions closer than ever. But the business case has yet to be proven or delivered. There is a continued requirement for a range of recycling options for plastics including food-grade applications, sheets, fibre, piping, strapping, benches and second-life processing into fuels for the plastics that we cannot recycle using traditional methods.
Discussions have evolved on the requirement to protect resources, and work towards a green economy. This creates an interesting debate about the best environmental approach for plastic packaging.
There is a drive to minimise resource use, but this can lead to the introduction of more complex additives or layers into packaging, or altering the pack format which itself can create a less recyclable product. Utopia of course is to achieve both.
So do we use less resource, but accept the pack may not be recyclable and the material which is used will always be lost, or use more resources to create a pack and try to improve recycling levels?
If we strive for higher recycling then it is reasonable to assume the majority of products entering the market, packaging and non-packaging alike, will have to be designed to be reused or recycled. The need exists to increase and promote the practical examples of the plastic circular economy in action.