What will the plastic recycling landscape look like in a post-Brexit world?
There is no doubting that 2020 has been a challenging year for the waste and recycling sector. And there is one stream which has been firmly in the spotlight over the last 12 months – plastic.
With regard to this widely used material, what challenges is the industry facing, what is the future looking like, and what role can local plastic recyclers play in helping to implement a sustainable model that promotes commodity recyclability at source?
Steve Kinley – commercial director of plastic recycling specialist, Indigo Environmental Ltd – shares his thoughts.
Setting the scene during a pandemic
Plastic waste is one of the world’s most widely debated and reported on topics. Over the past year, the spotlight has truly been shone upon this global material, with numerous documentaries revealing the impact plastic pollution is having on our planet. And they have arguably acted as one of the key catalysts in boosting public awareness.
While there have been numerous headlines about businesses joining plastic pacts and switching to more sustainable packaging options, the rollercoaster ride of coronavirus has thrown a proverbial spanner in the works – seeing the nation create high volumes of plastic waste.
In fact, over the course of recent months, the industry, and processes as we knew them have received an almighty shake-up.
Lockdown meant that UK plastic exporters’ trading routes were interrupted – and in some instances, completely ground to a halt – causing a huge ‘mirror moment’ to take place. The country stared at its own reflection and realised things had to change if we were to stop being reliant on overseas reprocessing plants to take our ‘wastes’.
In many ways, this was reminiscent of when China introduced its waste import ban in 2018 – but perhaps it is fair to say that we have not quite done enough to be self-sufficient since then.
That is because as a country, we are still shipping our waste abroad. Therefore, the saddening fact remains – we are losing two thirds of the resource opportunity we would otherwise generate here in our country of origin.
While this exportation of waste has previously been labelled as ‘recycling’, it is not. This method is merely ‘moving the problem’ to another destination, thus promoting a ‘throwaway’ culture – and, really, there is no such destination as ‘away’.
This kind of approach needs to stop if a circular economy is ever going to be an attainable reality for the UK – especially as we look forward to a life outside the European Union.
The plastic landscape after Brexit
As the ‘deal or no deal’ saga continues, and World Trade Organisation fees and tariffs remain unsettled, many of the country’s businesses are preparing themselves for the worst.
And while no one knows exactly what’s going to happen after 31 December, there are some actions and considerations the industry can, and should, make in order to plan ahead and future-proof the sector – making it sustainable and truly embracing of a circular economy.
While domestically, our commitment to a 65% municipal recycling rate by 2035 is set to be supported by our new Circular Economy Package, post-Brexit, we’ll still have lots of future planning to do to ensure UK plastic recyclers remain a competitive choice when selling their products to the EU market.
In addition to this, a nationwide change in attitude and mindset also needs to happen.
The misconception that plastic waste is ‘troublesome’ and should be phased out of the design process – or banned entirely – really is an incorrect and misguided approach.
Much of the problem lies in relation to human intervention. And this is where efforts need to be channelled, as a result.
From the offset, plastics will need to be designed with recyclability in mind. In addition, implementing deposit returns schemes on packaging, and ensuring businesses bear the end-to-end costs involved in recovery, are both measures which have a pivotal part to play in helping to create new habits and re-educate the population.
And post-Brexit, the role of local plastic recyclers will arguably never have been more important in helping to solve this industry challenge – acting as the ‘nodes’ of experience and working closely with manufacturers to phase out of non-recoverable polymers.
Instead of exportation, we should be geared up to redistribute our plastics within the UK system.
Because without local plastic recyclers, this recirculation would not be possible. They are the ones that recycle the commodity – via both traditional mechanical methods and new innovative technologies to recover and recycle difficult polymer types back to near virgin grades – for reuse.
And by viewing plastic as an ‘opportunity’ as opposed to a ‘nuisance’, we can facilitate the movement towards a more cyclical model. Which after Brexit, will be a crucial move in helping to propel the industry forward.
Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond
Regarding the future of plastic, the demand for this commodity is continuing to increase – with or without a deal. In fact, experts estimate that if the current rate of consumption continues, the worldwide plastic waste volume would grow from 260 million tonnes per year in 2016, to 460 million tonnes per year by 2030.
Ultimately, this would take what is already a serious environmental problem to a completely unrecoverable position for the planet. However, with more investment, consideration given to the ‘onshoring’ of plastic material in the UK, and the utilisation of innovative recovery technologies for unrecyclable mixed polymer streams, we would eradicate exports, improve our carbon footprint and foster sustainable best practice. And that is a world full of opportunity.