What’s on the horizon for plastic recycling in 2019?
Consumer scrutiny over the UK’s use of plastics has never been so acute, believes UNTHA UK’s sales director Gary Moore, which means an undeniably bright spotlight will be cast on hard-to-recycle plastics in 2019. But what have been the biggest catalysts for change in 2018 and what’s in store for the year ahead? Gary recently offered his thoughts to Recycling & Waste World, and you can catch up on the article below…
To say ‘2018 has been a big year for plastics’ would be a huge understatement. In fact, it’s fair to say that this has been the most significant 12 months of developments for this problematic material stream – ever.
In the Chancellor’s relatively succinct Spring Statement, for example, plastic recycling was really brought to the fore. In truth, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It was a logical next step, given the intention to launch a consultation was announced in the 2017 Autumn Budget. Nevertheless, to actually hear the detail underpinning the proposed ‘call for evidence’, was very refreshing – especially as Philip Hammond only spoke for 26 minutes in total!
His speech centred upon single-use plastics – a material now widely acknowledged to be blighting the world’s oceans. It used to be a concern that worried only the minority, but now plastic waste is on the radar of the masses, thanks – in a large part – to David Attenborough’s commentary on Blue Planet II. And so it should be. The plastic problem is huge.
A consultation on single-use plastics subsequently unfolded, within which the whole supply chain was analysed – and rightly so! In line with the principles of the waste hierarchy, the discussion shouldn’t just be about how troublesome items such as takeaway packaging and plastic plates are recycled. It is crucial to also look at product design and the creation of plastic waste in the first place, so that the issue can be tackled at source!
Fast forward to his Autumn Budget in late October, and the Chancellor announced a new tax on the manufacture and import of plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled plastic – another milestone moment. The decision formed part of his new policy to “transform the economics of sustainable packaging,” with his seemingly waste-hierarchy-focused-mindset elaborating that “where we cannot achieve reuse, we are determined to increase recycling.”
As is often the case with political matters, the proof will be in the pudding, and the industry must now await results of another government consultation surrounding the details and timetable of implementation. Looking ahead to 2019 it is therefore difficult to predict what the plastics landscape will look like, as who knows how quickly any pressure will be imposed.
This isn’t to say it won’t happen – I certainly hope it does – but sometimes the Cabinet’s promises can feel a little…hollow.
We were once told that a ‘latte levy’ would be introduced to help deal with the growing disposable coffee cup problem, which currently stands at 2.5 billion cups being thrown away per annum. The Autumn Budget however, confirmed that this was now being scrapped. Some people may welcome this decision, and of course a tax should not be required to instigate change. But there is proof that taxes do often drive the progress that is truly required – with landfill charges and the plastic bag fee among the successful examples to date.
Away from politics there have been other influential factors that will shape the future of plastics in 2019 and beyond. Economics have played a part too. China’s heavily-published ban on plastic imports – announced in January 2018 – reportedly means that more than 110 million tonnes of such waste will be displaced over the next 12 years. The UK is just one of many countries that has had to think fast about what to do next, and the sense of urgency has been heightened following the revelation of Malaysia’s subsequent ban, in October.
Then of course there have been industry-driven developments. In January 2018, a new collaborative scheme was revealed by WRAP to help further curb the escalating plastic waste issue. Major retailers, food manufacturers and packaging suppliers started coming together to take voluntary action. The group’s objectives are ambitious, but it is hoped that these organisations’ efforts combined will have a substantial impact.
We’ve already read about some seemingly impressive brand developments, with Tesco launching a trial ‘reverse-vending’ return scheme for plastic bottles, for instance, and Walkers announcing a national recycling scheme that will see packets being cleaned, shredded and pelletised for remanufacturing, from December. Of course the public now needs to help make these initiatives a success in 2019.
As 2018 unfolded, further pledges were made. In May, The British Plastics Federation (BPF) announced its vision to ensure that 100% plastic packaging and single-use items are reused, recycled or recovered by 2030. Furthermore, the BPF called for a revision of the PRN (packaging recovery note) system – whereby companies provide evidence that waste material has been recycled – to make it more robust. Perhaps this could spark the formation of even greater regulation in the coming years. Consumers care more about plastics after all, so the government is being pressured to care more too – and ensure that businesses demonstrate care in the process as well!
Many businesses do care however – something which UNTHA has first-hand experience of. Passionate about supporting the development of closed loop business models, for example, Indigo Environmental was founded to support the recycling and reuse of plastics from the automotive, process, manufacturing, waste management, food and beverage industries, as well as various local authorities. In April they announced the formation of a sophisticated new processing line, to ensure that contaminated materials which would otherwise end up in landfill – or worse – are reinserted into the market to maximise their resource value. In October, they confirmed another investment in recycling technology to further their mission. This time, they commissioned an UNTHA QR1400 to process wheelie bins and 205ltr drums. Capable of handling in excess of 500kg per hour, the machine will now transform this often-tricky plastic ‘waste’ into a homogenous <50mm fraction for remanufacturing.
Thankfully, the story of Indigo Environmental is not an isolated innovation case. More than 18 months have passed since Manchip3Media (M3Media) hit the headlines because of its mission to help combat the estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic that end up in the world’s oceans every year – long before David Attenborough caught the attention of the masses with his plight. This firm offers a confidential waste handling service for media ranging from physical tapes to modern data storage devices. In decommissioning these products, they provide clients with utmost peace of mind regarding security, whilst at the same time ensuring ethical waste processing – with the media cases granulated for recycling into products such as Lego, for example.
Encouragingly, these businesses are only two of a vast number of organisations that are trying to change the way the industry tackles plastic. There are many other brands working equally as hard, which is great to see. But the reason for name-dropping these examples is two-fold – firstly, it’s important that the efforts of businesses within our industry are acknowledged. Whilst David Attenborough is a national treasure – and his commitment to this planet is extraordinary – he’s not the only one pushing for a better future where plastics are concerned. Secondly, it’s important to keep talking about what’s going on in the plastics landscape so that people start to think differently. An article on Geographical.co.uk reports that “so far, only nine per cent of the plastic ever produced has been recycled.” This has to be one of the most frightening environmental statistics to have ever been published.
Changing mindsets will therefore be a very long, hard slog. It would be great to think that 2019 will be the year the penny drops – and perhaps it could be. But it is far more likely that it will be the year the industry – and thankfully now consumers – chip away at change.