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Invest in the infrastructure and we can revolutionise the UK’s recycling industry

Credit: BPF

British Plastics Federation

6 min read Partner content

Government investment is crucial for the British Plastics Federation to meet the “ambitious” forecast it outlines to revolutionise the UK’s plastic recycling industry.

Senior Recycling Issues Executive at the British Plastics Federation Helen Jordan says although the country has taken substantial strides, cutting landfill waste 70% since 2006, there is now “an opportunity to build on and accelerate this process”.

“But this cannot be done by industry alone,” says Jordan. “It needs government support… and key for us is that we see an investment in UK recycling infrastructure.”

Jordan’s passion for recycling is driven by both its environmental and economic benefits, believing that, with the called-for government support, the UK can lead the world in creating a circular plastics economy resulting in thousands of new jobs.

Detailing how to achieve this is why she is speaking with PoliticsHome and her comments follow publication of the British Plastic Federation’s Recycling Roadmap 2030.

By 2030, we want 50% of plastic waste going to mechanical recycling in the UK

Setting “ambitious but realistic” goals for the next decade, the Roadmap is targeting the reduction of plastic landfill waste to 1%, increasing UK processing and mechanical recycling volumes three-fold, cutting energy from waste by 30%, eliminating reliance on low quality exports, and developing the non-mechanical (chemical) recycling industry.

“By 2030, we want 50% of plastic waste going to mechanical recycling in the UK,” she says. “But for this we need to expand the infrastructure to a level to handle these volumes.”

Doing so would cut the quantities of recyclable plastic being exported. Although Jordan does not believe it would be possible to cut this to zero, she says it is feasible, by 2030, to cut this to 9% and eradicate export of low-quality waste plastics.

By this, she means she wants to see waste from consumer packaging and plastic bottles recycled in the UK rather than sent overseas for processing.

“We really need to reduce our reliance on exports to a point where we have zero reliance on low quality exports and are only sending recyclable waste overseas where doing so achieves the best environmental outcome,” she continues.

“What we don’t want though is to be reliant on an outlet for low quality materials. We want to be getting rid of that by 2030, and to achieve this, we need to get more UK recycling infrastructure in place.”

Jordan believes financing this undertaking could be achieved through ringfencing landfill and packaging taxes.

It’s important that we are increasing efficiencies as we scale-up the system to reduce any losses in the system and also improve the quality of end material

“Investment is the key thing that we want to come out from this report, as there is a real need for it here in the UK because with the investment we will be better able to control what is happening to our materials,” she continues.

“It is a win-win situation, creating a circular economy where we process recyclate here that can then be fed back into the supply chain and used in the manufacturing of new UK products.

“And, of course, building the recycling industry in the UK would be good for the UK jobs market, with figures from Europe suggesting that increased recycling could generate upwards of 200,000 jobs across the continent.”

Money will also be required for advancements in the sorting and processing of recyclate, so that efficiency improvements can be made in the way recycling is managed.

“It’s important that we are increasing efficiencies as we scale-up the system to reduce any losses in the system and also improve the quality of end material,” she says.

“We are forecasting that among these advancements will be an upturn in the volumes going into chemical recycling.

“Chemical recycling really is a growing sector, and there are a lot of companies laying out their plans for how to build on this over the next decade, which we expect to result in 7% of recyclable plastic being chemically recycled.”

Communicating the message

Noting public willingness to recycle, Jordan says confusion remains and government and industry must improve communication surrounding household recycling.

“This means we need a recycling model that is consistent and uniform, rather than differing from council to council,” she says. “Because we’re talking about different types of plastics, we also want improved collections for non-packaging items available in every council.

“The supply chain can play its part, providing uniformity in packaging and clear labelling on what is and isn’t recyclable.

If consumers decide they want new items, we want information on how they can reuse and recycle their old ones

“We also want information supplied by manufacturers on how people can get electrical items upgraded, rather than having to replace them,” she adds.

“If consumers decide they want new items, we want information on how they can reuse and recycle their old ones. Maybe this could be tied into the buying process.

Altering the way supply chains engage with recycling is an area that Jordan believes the British Plastics Federation is in a “unique position” to influence.

“As a federation, we have members across the whole supply chain, so we can facilitate bringing together these companies, and from here we can liaise with government on the views expressed by business,” she says.

“Already there is a lot happening in terms of supply chains working together, but there is always more that can be done.”

Where does it all go?

Of course, recycling the material is just the first stage. Getting it then to an end market is a prerequisite for creating the circular economy that Jordan envisions. Working out how this would work, she says, is one of the things left to do.

“We want to engage in a mapping exercise to see where our markets are, both in terms of closed and open loop,” Jordan says.

“We don’t want to just focus on material going back to the person who had it before. We also need to look at open-loop recycling. We want dual avenues and an ability to look at the opportunities in other markets.

There needs to be a better handle on what’s happening with our waste to reduce the opportunity for waste crime

“I think it would be very valuable to have government involved in this, in terms of looking at where our trade is likely to be and where the opportunities are.”

If all goes according to plan, Jordan says plastic waste ending up in landfills would be reduced to 1%, and only in “extreme cases” when either the item was unsuitable for energy from waste or simply could not be recycled.

She also hopes it would close off some avenues for waste crime, a particular concern to British Plastics Federation members over the course of 2020.

“There needs to be a better handle on what’s happening with our waste to reduce the opportunity for waste crime, and we are part of the recently launched government task force aimed at addressing this,” says Jordan.

“There’s definitely a focus from government on waste crime, which is good because of the concern our members have expressed about it.”

Despite work on the Roadmap beginning before the pandemic hit, Jordan says the goals remain achievable in the timeframe set, although she admits the “journey may potentially be harder”.

To view the British Plastics Federation's Recycling Roadmap 2030 click here

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