There is lots to celebrate about the announcement of the UK Plastics Pact that has been organised and co-ordinated by WRAP.
With 42 major brands on board that are responsible for 80% of the packaging on the market, then getting this right will make a huge difference to the recycling of packaging in the UK.
Along with a number of trade associations, the UK Plastics Pact signatories have agreed to:
- Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models
- 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
- 70% of plastic packaging effectively recycled or composted
- 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging.
At Vanden Recycling, we believe these clear targets will pave the way to seeing improved recycling rates if all parts of the supply and value chain work collaboratively to ensure they are met.
From the point of view of us as a plastics recycler, we welcome the opportunity to engage in the debate about how we can meet these targets by 2025.
My first suggestion is that we need to define clearly what is a single-use plastic as one use shouldn’t necessarily be the defining factor. If a plastic is used once, but is very easy to recycle, shouldn’t that be preferable than creating products that are complex or impossible to recycle but can be reused a handful of times?
For example, a HDPE milk bottle is a single use plastic at the moment, and is recycled back into milk bottles typically. A milk bottle is a great example of a single-use plastic that is easy to recycle and a system that works.
Although you could actually argue that we could reuse these before they need to be recycled, and this could be an alternative and simple reuse model that improves an existing system.
Taking this a step further, to encourage these new models, we should take a more sophisticated approach to defining problematic plastic that could be used to help prioritise change.
This approach should calculate how many times packaging can be used and how easy it is to recycle. Once we have worked that out for plastics, it then becomes an easier choice for manufacturers to decide the option that is most likely to help them meet these targets.
Taking the milk bottle example above, it is easy to recycle and can potentially be reused, so would rank highly as a packaging material of choice. But a complex, multi-material product that can not be reused and is impossible to recycle would be bottom on the list of material choices for manufacturers.
Indeed, it could be that the tax system is then used to penalise use of those materials that are problematic for reuse or recycling, while encouraging those that develop new reuse models or contribute to meeting the 30% recycled content target.
Ultimately, the long-term change has to sit with the brands, retailers and packaging designers as it will be them that determine what materials end up on the market.
By reducing the types of packaging that are difficult to recycle, designers will understand the negative impact of certain adhesive labels, complex hybrids of plastics and metalised films, and avoid these materials if possible.
Once we have got the packaging right, we also need to improve labelling and make it simple for people to understand whether a product can be recycled or not.
Local authorities will need to ensure they always collect the same materials in every part of the country, as this will mean the packaging manufacturers and retailers can simply label whether a product is recyclable or not in every recycling bin in every house.
I would like us to reach the point where the label says something as simple as ‘Yes, this can be recycled’ or ‘No, this can’t be recycled’ and then consumers know they can always put the recyclable product in the recycling bin.
For the recycling sector, this is a high risk course. If the UK as a whole decides to recycle a specific stream, the impact on downstream markets will be huge. That however, may be preferable to ongoing lack of consistency and confusion about what can and cannot be recycled.
Finally, there is one part of the UK Plastics Pact that concerns me and that is the reference to plastic packaging being compostable. This occurs in the 100% target of all packaging being reusable, recyclable and compostable, and the 70% target of plastic packaging effectively recycled or compostable.
Going back to my point of keeping everything as simple as possible, the addition of compostable plastics has the potential to complicate and contaminate.
It can be very difficult to sort and separate compostable plastics from traditional plastics, and they can contaminate the recycling process.
We also do not have the infrastructure to collect these separately as not every local authority provides food waste collections and compostable plastics require commercial composting solutions to break down.
But apart from that concern, the UK Plastics Pact has the potential to make a big difference throughout the UK supply and value chain as long as we work collaboratively across it. I’m looking forward to continuing those conversations with the packaging manufacturers and retailers we work with as well as helping new customers to meet these targets.
David Wilson is managing director at Vanden Recycling