Tuesday, 7 September 2010

It’s a wrap!

I’m going to write a blog now, that I suspect will be read my few, so if you are actually reading this, I commend your endurance!

A new report into the UK’s plastic recycling habits reveals much food for thought.
The rather disturbing conclusion drawn in the WRAP report, is that despite an expansion in domestic reprocessing capacity; the UK remains heavily dependent on export markets for recycling its recovered plastics. So much for the predictions of a few years ago that we would be recycling most of our waste by now. Which is rather a depressing prognosis, given the realisation that land fills have almost reached saturation point.

In 2009, an estimated 900,000 tonnes of plastics was collected for recycling. Of this, 590,000 tonnes was plastic packaging; but over 700,000 tonnes of recovered plastics were exported for recycling in 2009, predominantly to China. About two-thirds of this is estimated to be packaging. The primary trading route for material destined for China continued to be via Hong Kong.

Also, the plastic bottle-recycling rate now stands at over 40% and there has been extensive investment in UK plastic bottle processing capacity over the past two years.

According to the National Packaging Waste Database (NPWD), around 590,000 tonnes of plastics packaging was recycled in 2009,14% more than in 2008 and 23% more than in 2007. Nevertheless, this equates to a recycling rate of under 25%. The majority of recycled plastic continues to be plastic bottles.

UK consumption of plastics is estimated to be around 5 million tonnes a year. Of this, nearly half is used in packaging, and a further quarter is used in the construction sector. Long-term trend growth in plastics consumption is estimated to be around 1% per annum, although plastics consumption is believed to have fallen during the recession in 2009, largely as a result of the contraction in the construction sector.

Of the 1.5 million tonnes of plastics packaging consumed by households, a quarter is rigid plastic packaging (such as pots, tubs and trays) and the remainder is films and bags. Commercial and industrial plastic packaging waste tends to be plastic films, which are used as secondary packaging (to get a product to a retailer or distribution centre), and larger rigid items such as crates, totes and drums. And the report admits that the recent increase in packaging recycling has come mainly from plastic bottles.

The needs to strengthen the UK’s recycling capacity is given priority in the report, as it says, “attention has now turned to collecting and developing infrastructure to recycle mixed packaging plastics, less than 5% of which is currently recycled. Around 20% of local authorities already operate kerbside mixed plastic collections, and 2011 will see the operation of the UK’s first mixed plastic reprocessing.” But oddly enough, whilst recycling isn’t progressing as well as forecast a few years ago, there is a high demand for such products, with demand for food-grade recovered polymers currently outstripping supply. With demand likely to strengthen further, this represents an opportunity for UK manufacturers of recovered polymers; recycling of non-packaging plastics has also increased in recent years, largely as a result of regulatory drivers.

There is also strong demand for recovered clear PET and natural HDPE bottles. Domestic demand for food-grade recycled plastics currently outstrips domestic supply, and there are believed to be significant imports, largely from the EU, to meet this demand. This was one of the more shocking findings for me at any rate in this report. We are actually importing recycled plastics due to an inability to recycle enough of our own!

Waste collections by local authorities have shot up massively, with more than half of the plastic packaging collected for recycling, from the municipal waste stream. In 2008/09, UK local authorities (LAs) are estimated to have collected 320,000 tonnes of plastics from the municipal waste stream, almost three times what they collected in 2005/06

The growth in plastics collections has been achieved by rapid expansion in LA kerbside collection schemes. In 2008/09, more than 80% of UK LAs operated kerbside plastic collection schemes. In terms of household coverage, it is estimated that 70% of households have plastic bottle collections. By contrast, only around 20% of LAs offered kerbside collections of mixed (non-bottle) rigid plastics.

But again around 90% of the plastic packaging collected from local authorities is plastic bottles.

In order to bring the recycling rate for rigid plastic packaging to a level comparable with that for plastic bottles, a further 160,000 tonnes of rigid plastic packaging would need to be collected. To achieve this, more mixed plastics collection and sorting capacity will need to be put in place. To date, there has been less investment in domestic capacity to recover and recycle mixed plastic packaging. A key barrier has been a lack of capacity to sort mixed plastics into separate polymer streams, which in turn reflects the difficulty of competing with low-cost manual sorting in the Far East. As a result, most of the mixed plastics collected are exported for reprocessing.

An additional 100,000 tonnes of annual plastic bottle reprocessing capacity is planned to come on-stream over the next five years.

WRAP research has shown that plastics recovery facilities (PRFs) that sort mixed plastics into separate polymers can be commercially viable in the UK. Indeed, PRF capacity has already started to develop in the UK, with two firms already having built plastic sorting lines that can sort and bale non-bottle rigid plastics although neither is capable of handling plastic films.

In 2009, WRAP awarded grant funding to support the development of the first UK facility to be able to both sort and process a range of non-bottle rigid polymers from municipal plastics collections. Although the report also warns that a key to the success of future investments will be the development of collection schemesthat are able to provide a secure supply of high quality mixed plastics feedstock.


  1. Phew! sterling job and i did just about get through it all! Great synopsis of a massive report and, as you say, a lot of food for thought. It will be interesting to see where the UK goes with all of this. Thanks for bringing attention to this important issue'; it's good for consumers to have the facts about these things.

  2. Oh my you read it Rae, lol. Well done you. And thank you for sending the report to me in the first place. But no more please, at least not for 6 months!! I've had enough of them for now :)

  3. While it would be good if we used less plastic overall, I felt the report was largely optimistic with regard to the future of plastic recycling in the UK. If we do use plastic, the more we recycle and the less we send to landfill the better.