RECOUP releases report on plastic recycling and effects on local authorities

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2019

A report finds that local authorities are struggling with the knock-on effects of post-consumer plastic bans. Shardell Joseph finds out more.

RECycling Of Used Plastics limited (RECOUP) has published a new report highlighting the difficulties local authorities have with plastic recycling. The May 2019 paper, Local authority plastics end market analysis, found that 52% of local authorities are now experiencing issues with plastic markets, with nearly half of their market values being affected.

Gathering responses from local authorities across the UK, RECOUP stated that quality has become the primary market factor and end markets are becoming increasingly limited. Analysing why there is not enough value in collecting low-grade material, RECOUP Technical Manager, Steve Morgan, told Materials World, ‘It can be collected, but needs to be sorted into fractions that have recycling markets. The recent DEFRA consultation that has just closed proposes reforming the packaging producer responsibility system in the UK. It is exploring the possibility of introducing modulated fees, which could mean additional fees for non-recyclable packaging.’

As a result, low-grade material – mixed plastics –  are being diverted to energy recovery, refuse-derived fuel and solid recovered fuel.

‘It provides an energy recovery outlet which then does not incur landfill tax and associated gate fee, although recycling should be the primary aim for post-consumer packaging,’ said Morgan.

There is significant income generated from plastic packaging collected from recycling, as well as employment and business opportunities for local authorities, waste management providers and recyclers. As the value of plastic collected changes due to market conditions, the business case to recycle is proven if an end market is commercially viable.

The market for plastic packaging waste has seen a substantial shift since the Chinese government banned imports of post-consumer plastics – a decision that has stalled global recycling efforts. Prior to China’s ban, 95% of the plastics collected for recycling in the EU were sold and shipped to Chinese processors.

Although other destinations were sought, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Poland, these countries could not cope with additional material. With tougher import restrictions and import bans in place, end market availability has been transformed in a short period of time.

The report also found there is a general consensus among local authorities that some plastics packaging placed on the market are leaving waste management providers with the problem of managing and disposing of seemingly poor-quality material, with little or no consideration for recyclability or end destination of the packaging. They are optimistic, however, that this could be transformed by an increased focus on end-of-life design.

The UK government held four consultations to deal with the changes in end markets and recyclability, aiming to meet commitments set out in the Recourse Waste Strategy and the 25-Year Environment Plan. This, in turn, will accelerate change to how the UK funds, structures and manages its waste materials.