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Sebastian Dunnett: UK recycling – matching supply with demand

October 29, 2013 1 Comment »

Current UK supply of and demand for recycled material is just not matching up

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Sebastian Dunnett webThe supply of recycled material is not the issue; demand for recycled material has to be created by innovation in the sector. I recently presented a selection of the packaging-related outputs of BFF’s work with Defra to develop a UK Soft Drinks Sustainability Roadmap (‘roadmap’) at the Recoup Plastics Recycling Conference and AGM 2013.

The roadmap work highlighted the importance of packaging impacts in the UK soft drinks sector. For example, packaging manufacture contributes 54% to the life cycle emissions of a generic carbonated soft drink product.

The roadmap also found that on-trade packaging waste is dominated by two materials: plastic (PET) (48%), and glass (38%). Despite the recyclability of these materials, 71% of on-trade waste is sent to landfill or incineration, presumably because of the costs involved with recycling. One of the research recommendations we drew from the roadmap was to match recycling supply with demand; this would prove extremely pertinent to one of the main discussion streams of the conference.

A good example of supply and demand mismatch was expounded by the general manager of rigid plastic packaging firm RPC David Baker in a particularly entertaining presentation: plastic pots, tubs and trays (PTT), e.g. butter and yogurt pots. Demand for PTT is currently constricted by strict European regulations concerning polypropylene (PP), which prevent PP previously housing cosmetics or cleaning products to be recycled into food-grade PP. Baker warned that the industry must find other non-food uses for recycled PP in order to raise demand to complement the clear supply of PP, e.g. RPC supplying paint cans for AkzoNobel Decorative Paints containing 25% recycled PP polymer. This mismatch in supply and demand was further highlighted by other companies’ presentations, e.g. Visy, who have constructed a global supply chain of recycled products in order to match supply with demand.

A recurring concern for conference attendees levelled at Lord De Mauley, Defra Parliamentary Under Secretary for Resource Management, was the ambitious government recycling targets to keep the UK in line with the Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC). While Recoup revealed PET bottle collection rates are up 5% on 2011 to 58%, PTT collection has remained stagnant at ~19%; far too low to hit government recycling targets. Baker highlighted the need for PTT recycling infrastructure, but added that this may not happen before the onset of the 2017 targets. Furthermore, industry members were quick to point out the conflict in the simultaneous push for bottle lightweighting to lower manufacturing impacts, and the ambitious recycling targets (measured by weight, of which one solution would be to move towards setting targets by value of waste collected).

Sustainability professionals have to be more aware of the conflicting pressures applied to recycling businesses, and acknowledge that, as with most aspects of sustainability, there are always trade-offs to consider when tackling the environmental impacts of any product. BFF have demonstrated the efficacy of lightweighting in reducing impact (case study), but there will be limits to upstream packaging solutions. The recycling industry needs to concentrate on following industry leaders in thinking outside of the PP tub to find novel uses for recycled material to match supply with demand. Ideally, the plastics industry would combine utilising more recycled materials, increased recycling, and reduced resource reliance to represent a triple win.

The conference also saw the announcement or discussion of:

  • Defra pledged £20,000 to Recoup’s Plastic Matters campaign, following on from the success of Metal Matters
  • The launch of Recoup’s two flagship documents (available online soon), 2013 UK Household Plastics Packaging Collection Survey and Recyclability by Design
  • A debate over the exclusion of biodegradable plastic bags from the new carrier bag tax
  • A discussion on the inequity in the packaging recovery note (PRN) and packaging export recovery note (PERN) systems, where there is currently an unfair advantage for export markets over UK plastics reprocessors.

Sebastian Dunnett is a Researcher at Best Foot Forward, part of the Anthesis Consulting Group PLC