One bin to rule them all: the future of plastic waste?
Despite the success of environmental campaigners in raising awareness of plastic pollution, much of the plastic waste produced in the UK is not recycled. In part, this is due to the complexity of the multiple recycling schemes in place across the country, causing confusion for both the public and waste management companies in terms of what can and can’t be recycled.
In this blog, Professor Mike Shaver from The University of Manchester outlines the ‘One Bin’ project, an ambitious vision that seeks to standardise the handling of plastic waste in the UK and reduce the volume of plastic thrown into the general rubbish bin.
- There are 39 different plastic recycling schemes across the UK, each with different variations on what types of plastic are accepted.
- This creates confusion for consumers, who are expected to sort their waste before disposing of it.
- Instead, a standardised approach to plastic waste management would see all plastic go in the same bin, to be sorted into reuse, mechanical and chemical recycling pathways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven the importance of plastic, in keeping medical equipment sterile and in providing essential personal protective equipment (PPE). The problem with plastic is not the material itself, or even necessarily how it is used – it is in the way we dispose of it. At present, there are almost 40 different plastic recycling regimes used by local authorities across the UK, resulting in uncertainty among the public as to what types of plastic can and can’t be put in the recycling bin.
For example, most local authorities will take plastic bottles, but few collect plastic films, which are essentially unrecyclable through current systems. In all cases, the onus is on the consumer to sort recyclables and from non-recyclables.
UK recycling infrastructure for household waste generally consists of multi-bin kerbside collections which are taken to Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) to be further sorted. Plastic bottles are extracted and sent to recyclers. However, the variation in bin contents within and between authorities, plus contamination levels, make it difficult for MRFs to produce consistent high-quality recyclate.
Other plastics, roughly sorted into single polymer bales, are sent for further processing to Plastics Recovery Facilities (PRFs) or exported for incineration. Polymers which can be sorted to a high degree of purity at PRFs are mechanically recycled using heat and pressure treatments to form flakes or pellets which can be extruded and blow moulded into new uses, including new plastic bottles. The remainder is incinerated in Energy from Waste plants, often abroad.
The ’One Bin’
Instead, we propose a vision of a standardised recycling scheme across the UK. Building from the premise that many consumers are confused by current schemes, we argue that the various recycling regimes should be replaced by a single household bin for all plastics – the ‘One Bin to Rule Them All’. This proverbial bin is actually a set of rules, co-developed with cross-sector stakeholders, to help recover plastic waste through an integration of reuse, and mechanical and chemical recycling.
The premise of One Bin, that customer confusion causes reduced kerbside collection levels and increased contamination, is supported by our project partners. As well as standardising household waste recycling, the One Bin vision includes national standards for the output bales – bulk bundles of sorted but unrecycled plastics – produced by MRFs and PRFs. Nationally standardised output bales would enable a market in recyclate to develop, facilitating increases in both general recycling and participation by more niche reprocessors.
Delivering a One Bin vision will conserve resources through the reduction and eventual elimination of plastic leakage into the environment. Achieving it requires promotion of reuse, mechanical and chemical recycling pathways, in a tightly linked circular economy of plastic, where plastic recycling volumes are increased by sorting by material value instead of polymer. The true worth of the One Bin proposal is its joint consistency and flexibility.
As the infrastructure is not currently in place for economically viable recycling of all plastics, it remains essential to evolve this system to maintain and then improve both value and volumes through better sorting. If a plastic does not currently have recycling value, it could progress through to chemical or an existing waste management pathway. Segregation for mechanical recycling would only occur where economically viable – but importantly this can change as new technologies become available.
Achieving this vision
The requirements for systemic change to realise a circular economy of plastic in the UK are split into four over-arching, interlinked themes: standardisation, infrastructure investment, collaborative business models and value creation. Dependant on these main themes there are specific technical, social and economic requirements, such as improving mechanical recycling processes, designing pathways for recycling or reuse, developing economically viable chemical recycling and implementing regulatory changes. Each of these is highly impactful on its own, but none can reach their full potential without realisation of the main systemic changes.
Governments have a significant role to play in regulation and standardisation: often this role extends to encouraging infrastructure investment and business cooperation. In the plastics sphere this attempt at encouraging businesses to look at their waste streams is evident in the Plastic Packaging Tax and Extended Producer Responsibility.
Of course, the history of governments creating good headlines, but poor execution, is of concern. However, several factors in combination have started to increase infrastructure investment, including public and policy pressures. Research into new processes has also increased, particularly into chemical recycling.
The standardisation agenda has been driven through WRAP – financially supported by the government – but voluntarily with industry. Perhaps this is tacit acknowledgement that detail is often built better from the bottom up rather than prescribed from the top down. This only highlights the urgency to ensure that the right infrastructure investments are made to align with the right policy levers.
Regardless, there is a desire for government policies that provide a level playing field from which to build future solutions. The interdisciplinary design of this research, involving material scientists, social scientists and economists, has been crucial to promote research progress, as the project has evolved from one idea conceived around polymer chemistry to an integrated future exploring the relationship between these polymers, household practice and collaborative business models. While polymer chemistry and engineering may ultimately determine the recycling approach and the form which best retains value, it is the sustainable system that will create this value.
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