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The UK has been tasked with achieving a recycling rate of 65% by 2035, along with other EU member states, as set out in the Circular Economy Package (CEP) put together by the European Commission.

The CEP also outlines the EU’s Plastic Strategy, which is placing an emphasis on building secondary markets within Europe to make recycled plastic more profitable. These markets will also help create a circular economy that reduces environmental impact, secures the supply of virgin materials and creates more opportunity for innovation and economic growth.

Creating European markets has been a pressing issue since China shut its doors to the importation of plastic waste last year, which forced EU member states into confronting their waste problem.

Proposed legislation includes specific targets with regards to plastic packaging, which is required to be fully recyclable by 2030. Within this legislation, reducing plastic waste at source will become a priority and £89 million has been assigned to financing the development of plastic polymers that are more recyclable.

But what else is required from residents, local authorities and enterprises to improve the recycling rates in the UK?


What is holding the UK back from improving plastic recycling?

When it comes to financing the plastic recycling industry and producer responsibility, plastic manufacturers and converters are obliged to contribute towards the costs of recycling, with this year’s statutory target being 55%, and 57% in 2020.

Along with the purchasing of PRN certificates as evidence of the recovery or recycling, plastic manufacturers will be tasked with taking further responsibility for their packaging. The proposed single-use plastic tax requires plastic manufacturers to include 30% recycled content in their packaging, with anything under being subject to a tax.

Demand is also being placed on these businesses to not only communicate how much recycled content is in the packaging but be transparent with regards to how recyclable the product is, and how they are capturing this content.

The introduction of such schemes is giving us a sophisticated approach to ensure that plastic is recovered and used in the correct way, enabling circular economies to flourish. This is a significant development on the simpler weight only approach of the first round of Producer Responsibility introduced in 1997

There are several elements that are currently acting as barriers to the UK improving its rate of plastic recycling, although there are current success stories that have perhaps not been celebrated.

For example, when it comes to plastic bottle, the UK has increased its rate of capture from virtually nothing, to in excess of 65%. This is due to the introduction of domestic recycling bins and services in the early 2000s. 

However, the lack of standardised approach offered across the UK has led to a lack of consistency with regards to the materials that are collected and recycled, particularly with regards to the varying plastic polymers that can be collected and recycled.

There are around 450 local authorities across the UK, who have each set their own recycling policies and schemes. There are currently over 300 recycling instructions in the UK, feeding into varying MRFs, who in turn have different requirements of the materials that they sort and process. There is also a clear divide between the needs of urban and rural facilities. The variations of these schemes are widely recognised, and if local authorities don’t become more consistent, we expect to see environmental agencies step in.

While the capture rate of domestic packaging, including plastic bottles, is high, the capture rate for the on-the-go market is known to be holding the UK back. The rate is low because of the lack of facilities to collect these items - i.e. designated plastic recycling/recycling bins, meaning there is low availability for it to enter the recycling stream. The solution to improving this capture rate is likely  to be executed through the introduction and huge investment of deposit return schemes. We’ve previously discussed this topic here.

The inconsistency and complexity of labelling of plastic packaging is often credited with contributing to the low capture rate, while mixed polymer items are known to hinder the plastic recycling process, with MRFs required to remove films early in the separation process to prevent issues with sorting materials further downstream.

As these recycling initiatives start to take place over the next 1-5 years, we anticipate that we are going to see a very different way of recycling. 

Plastic Recycling Role Models

One country that we should perhaps be looking to for plastic recycling guidance, is Taiwan. Once hailed as ‘garbage island’, the country now boasts one of the world’s most efficient recycling schemes. Taiwan doesn’t have the best recycling rate in the world, but what is so incredibly impressive is how the country has managed to turn things around from such dire straits

In the mid-90s, around 60% of Taiwan’s landfills were either full, or almost full. Growing civil unrest surrounding the issue was a driving force for change and initially, there was a proposal for building incinerators to deal with the densely populated islands waste. Alongside this, was also a proposal to build a new waste management infrastructure that encouraged both manufacturers and the public to adopt new recycling practices that would mean less general waste was produced.

The new waste management policies were built around the ethos of extended producer responsibility and requires importers and manufacturers to fund recycling initiatives. In 1997, the 4-in-1 Recycling programme was implemented to bring residents, recycling industries, local authorities and recycling funds together.


Plastic manufacturers playing an active role in waste collection

In the same year, changes were made to Taiwan’s Waste Disposal Act that saw manufacturers and importers pay a recycling free to the country’s Environmental Protection Administration or play and active role and offer a recycling waste collection service to consumers.

The fees that are paid pay into the Recycling Fund, a trust that subsidizes the collection and recycling of waste by licensed businesses. The fee rates are based on the quantities of new products comprised of materials that are listed in Taiwan’s ‘Regulated Recyclable Waste’ table. Fees that have been paid on items that are then exported, are reimbursed.

To put his into perspective for plastic recycling, the following plastic polymers are listed:

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
  • Polyvinylchloride (PVC)
  • Polyethylene (PE)
  • Polypropylene (PP)
  • Polystyrene (PS foam)
  • Polystyrene (PS non-foam)
  • Bio-plastics

Manufacturers and importers are responsible for packaging, products and containers that fall under the ‘Regulated Recyclable Waste’ as well as collecting any end of life products. There are specific collections set up at retail locations across the country to accommodate this.

Prior to 1997, manufacturers and importers were required to recycle, but unorganised and unstructured collection channels meant that the rate of collection was low.


Plastic recycling becomes a personal responsibility

There is a huge community involvement when it comes to waste collection; music played from the waste collection vehicles (that make their rounds twice a day) let residents know it’s time to take their waste outside. There is one truck for general rubbish and mixed waste, and another that is specifically for recyclable materials, staff and volunteers flank the vehicles to help residents sort their waste accordingly, the materials are then sent to recycling facilities to be recycled, although it’s worth noting that some waste does still end up in landfill.

For those who can’t make the collection rounds, some cities have ‘smart recycling booths’ that offers money back for bottles and can. We have previously touched upon bottle return schemes in this blog.

And for those who aren’t disposing of their waste in the required way? Fines or public shaming. Taiwan operates with the concept that for circular economies to truly take place, waste disposal needs to be in the public consciousness, and individuals must become personally responsible for their consumption.

We can already see how this thinking has impacted our behaviour in the UK with the use of single-use plastic bags. Since 2015, when the 5p charge was introduced, use of these bags has decreased by around 70%, and 15 billion carrier bags were taken out of circulation. Could the same be said for plastic recycling if more responsibility was placed onto the individual?


Plastic recycling league tables

Taiwan now claims a 77% diversion rate for industrial waste and 55% for commercial and household waste and produces more recyclable waste than waste that is non-reusable.

Alongside Taiwan, there are other countries that are setting positive examples when it comes to recycling.

Germany - 56.1%

Austria - 53.8%

South Korea - 53.7%

Wales - 52.2%

Switzerland - 49.7%

Rather disappointingly, England finds itself in the 18th position with the UK overall in 16th place.

While, clearly, there is much room for improvement when it comes to the collection and reprocessing of post-consumer plastic waste, there are of course opportunities that can be leveraged immediately for firms to recycle post-production scrap, redundant and end-of-life stock.  

To further explore how working with Vanden can secure rebates and help you in creating circular solutions, please speak to a member of our team today.

David Wilson

Written by David Wilson

UK Managing Director

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