Recoup warns of UK “wish cycling” amid growing recycling efforts
14 Dec 2022 --- Recoup estimates that a staggering 750,000 metric tons of post-consumer plastic packaging are currently not collected for recycling. The newly launched report has found that over 600,000 metric tons of UK household plastic packaging were collected for recycling in 2021, an increase of 4% on the previous year. This is an overall collection rate of 43% for all household plastic packaging in the UK that is gathered curbside.
In its new UK Household Plastic Packaging Collection Survey report, the plastic resource efficiency and recycling charity stresses this allows a huge opportunity for upcoming legislative changes to help bridge the gap between the UK’s current capture rate and what plastic packaging is placed on the market each year.
“Although there are challenges to come in meeting increasing recycling and recovery targets, it’s heartening to see UK collections of plastic packaging grow, especially in the aftermath of such disruption in the last few years – be it economic, pandemic, or political,” Tom McBeth, policy and infrastructure projects manager at Recoup tells PackagingInsights.
“It is a huge credit to local authorities and their teams that this has been achieved, and also the public for what is a continued and growing effort to do their part.”
“Support from the government is needed, and the key win now should be to clarify and communicate plans and expectations relating to upcoming policy.”
Hampered material quality
With recycling targets set to increase year-by-year, up to 62% in 2030, proposed in upcoming Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, greater volumes of currently uncollected material will need to be seized.
The report found that in 2021 over 200,000 metric tons of plastic bottles, 250,000 metric tons of plastic pots, tubs and trays, and over 300,000 metric tons of plastic films and flexibles were not collected, offering huge potential for increasing collection rates with the correct legislative drivers.
Recoup also found that local authorities experience material rejection rates of up to 35%, with an average of 13%, highlighting the need for clear and consistent communications to citizens to help reduce contamination and improve material quality.
As the UK looks to navigate its way through the many changing environmental policies, Recoup says it continues to provide expertise and guidance for its members across the plastics recycling value chain and policymakers.
“This shows that while good intentions and effort are put in, ‘wish cycling’ and consumer confusion are still hampering the material quality. Funding of communication campaigns and consistency from local authorities will help to address this going forward.”
What can the government do?
McBeth says that in late 2022, Defra and the UK government have seen a flurry of activity in terms of environmental policy, especially EPR.
“The UK must not lose the sight and momentum of these policies, which have been discussed for several years with limited progress. Additionally, with movement from the devolved nations to implement their own legislation and to consult on such, the danger of losing the holistic approach to these policies across the UK is very real, and one that shouldn’t happen simply due to a perceived lack of progress.”
“Infrastructure and arrangements have been hindered by the uncertainty around policy, and the sooner the likes of target materials for mandatory recycling collections are confirmed, the sooner UK local authorities and waste management companies can adapt their collections, communications and infrastructure to cater for these,” asserts McBeth.
He stresses that financial investment is also needed, especially for food-grade reprocessing infrastructure “and those that have been historically ‘hard to recycle,’ of which there is a significant shortfall of capacity for the UK. This will complement and encourage private investment if the UK is to put itself in a position to manage its waste.”
UK Plastic Packaging Pact
McBeth says that while the UK Plastic Pact provides overarching targets and a framework for organizations in the use and recycling of plastic packaging, the number of variables in packaging use, as well as UK and global policy, means it must be seen as complementary to resource efficiency and supporting recycling.
“What the Plastic Pact, as well as industry working groups and other discussions, have shown during the last few years is that conversations are taking place on a far wider scale, from major retailers and manufacturers down to the consumer, all looking at working toward the reduction of waste and carbon impact, and this can only be positive, and indeed essential in achieving the environmental targets set.”
Recoup works closely with WRAP and a number of organizations that are members of the Pact and will continue to do so to help ensure that actions and activities continue to seek the best environmental outcomes.
“What is now important is that it is not allowed to stagnate. With the current flurry of information and activity from Defra, particularly relating to the introduction of EPR, and the funding mechanisms and mandated collection of plastic films for recycling at curbside,” continues McBeth.
“Hopefully, local authorities and waste management providers will have the confidence and assurance to adapt and invest in their collection schemes to see the capture of more of these currently lost resources,” he concludes.
By Natalie Schwertheim
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