Barriers to greater recycling are largely logistical, not technical
The British Plastics Federation Director General writes of the progress the industry has made to increase plastic recycling and calls on the government to work with the sector to increase the UK's potential in this area, whilst protecting the 170,000 UK jobs in the UK plastics industry.
The UK is a leading player in the global plastics industry. In fact, we created the plastics industry in 1862. Today, the UK plastics industry is the third largest manufacturing sector in terms of employment, providing over 170,000 jobs, and we are the country’s ninth largest exporter. Every member of Parliament is likely to have a plastics firm in their constituency.
Plastic has been a focus of media attention in recent months and unfortunately the picture projected has been rather one sided, in which the fundamental benefits of the material, particularly in saving energy and preventing carbon emissions, have been ignored. Much, quite rightly, has been made of the presence of plastic litter in the seas. It is right that the UK should set an example, alongside other developed nations, in preventing it from getting there. The plastics manufacturing industry certainly has a role to play in terms of preventative measures but so do the users, transporters and those managing waste, who all must also play their part in an integrated effort. Plastics arrive in the sea through many different routes and there is no single magic bullet to resolve the situation. It has to be dealt with on an international basis, as the vast bulk of plastics entering the seas comes from developing nations in Asia with relatively rudimentary waste management systems. It is encouraging that the government’s recent announcement has recognised this.
The Treasury has raised the possibility of a tax on single-use plastics and there will be a call for evidence to examine the viability of this. The important thing is not to throw out the baby with the bath water. If the intent of the tax is to discourage the use of plastic, it could result in alternatives being used that require more resources and result in no less litter. We must recognise the tremendous progress made in plastics recycling — and not just in the single-use area. We have increased plastics packaging recycling to 45% and plastic drinks bottles recycling has reached 74%. We are rapidly reaching the point where it can be said that there is no such thing as a ‘single-use’ plastic product. All are capable of having multiple lives. The barriers to greater recycling are largely logistical — not technical — and government can play a major role in unlocking the UK’s potential.
The well-publicised Chinese restrictions on waste importations provide us with a huge opportunity to develop a truly circular economy. Government should help to improve the waste management of plastics by doing more to standardise collections, to improve the quality of the used plastics available to recyclers, to incentivise the use of recycled plastics and ensure that the UK is the first to be recycling all plastic by developing new technologies. The plastics innovation fund that was recently announced is a welcome start. But there is also much-needed reform of the producer responsibility (packaging) regulations, which have favoured the export of waste over domestic recycling. All packaging manufacturers and users are already, in effect, paying a tax to facilitate the recycling of their products and it makes sense to modify this rather than create a new fiscal regime, which would undermine the competitiveness of British businesses and potentially cause job losses.
In this discussion please remember that plastics are a technological wonder. Their unique combination of being lightweight, durable and insulating saves fuel consumption and cuts pollution from motor vehicles and aircraft, while keeping homes warm and cutting fuel bills. Their biocompatibility and hygienic surfaces contribute to high levels of healthcare. Sophisticated plastics packaging prevents food waste and enables choice. The British public relies on plastics. The UK plastics industry helps keeps Britain moving, fed, well and warm and the 170,000 people who work in it deserve applause for creating a national economic strength.