Making plastic more recyclable

RECycling of Used Plastics (Recoup) is a charity which aims to promote, develop and increase the amount of plastic being recycled in the UK.

The charity recently published a series of case studies to help plastic manufacturers and designers make their packaging more recyclable.

Environment Journal spoke to Recoup’s chief executive, Stuart Foster, about the organisation and how the plastics industry is working to ensure more packaging is recycled.

Could you tell us a bit about the charity and how it came about?

Recoup was set up in 1990 and this was before producer responsibility regulations came in for packaging. Effectively, a group of plastic supply chain organisations came together, recognising the need to improve the environmental credentials for plastics. They became the founding members of Recoup. Our job was to set up and develop plastic recycling with more focus around the packaging element. In the early days, different bits of the recycling chain had to come together to make it work. It meant working with local authorities, who were engaging with the idea of collecting plastic bottles for recycling.

If you fast forward to today, our remit is the same. Our membership still spans across the plastics and recycling chain. Of course, there are still some traditional issues to overcome. We are still not recycling as many plastic bottles as we would like to. Ultimately, the feeling is there have been some step changes over the last 27 years, we are just now encountering some opportunities for wholesale changes.

What have been the main steps forward in recycling plastic in the last 27 years?

1997 was when the producer responsibility regulations came in, with the setting plastic packaging recycling targets. In the early years of that system, we were mostly meeting the targets through recycling commercial and industrial plastics. In the first 10 years of producer responsibility, we saw the switch from relying on commercial collections to moving to more household collections. Then in around 2007-8, other reduced plastic packaging started to be added to more and more collection schemes.

Today, we see pretty much every UK local authority with a kerbside plastic bottle collection service and around 75% with a pot, tub and tray collection service on the kerbside. In the early days, you tended to see more of that material go to export. Then as the material increased, you could justify investing in more UK utilities. We still have that reliance [on exports] today, but we now have the UK infrastructure behind it. Around two thirds of what is collected still goes to export. Some feel that is too high, but we’re in a position now where that is under review, because the Chinese are looking to clamp down on imports of low quality waste and recycling.

What are the main barriers for more recycled plastic in this country?

The collection rates are pretty stagnant from households at the moment. While the infrastructure is there, there is still more to be done. All the evidence we see points towards the need for more consumer engagement and communication. We are working in times of austerity. Local authorities have had budget cuts and sometimes communications is one of the easier things to cull, but it’s essential to boost recycling rates. The average consumer is confused about what they can and cannot recycle. They also want to know more about what happens after they put it in the collection. If we can get those messages out there, the feeling is we could see a real jump in collection rates. What we see as the best approach is something called Pledge 4 Plastics, which we set up a few years ago to provide consistent messages across the UK, but it’s an ongoing effort to raise funding to allow us to do this programme.

From your perspective, is there anything local authorities could be doing to help?

I think there’s been a natural alignment in the ways services are being delivered. Some counties are fully aligned already. A number of them have compatible collection systems and feed them into a central sorting facility, and it works. Another key area of discussion at the moment is extending producer responsibility. The road map was expected to be the new European circular economy package, but after Brexit we’re not sure where we stand. If we are not going to follow the new, ambitious circular economy plans from Europe then we need to know what ambitious plans we are going to follow. Although to be fair, we are seeing more ambition from the devolved nations. Scotland and Wales are leading the way.

But going back to local authorities, we’ve completed a survey of local authorities every year since 1994 and whilst they may be restricted in terms of resources, I think find we could find ways of making sure the basics are right in how the messages are conveyed to the public. There are things we could knock on the head quite quickly.

Another really important point is there is more desire and ambition from producers and retailers to engage in this process as well. A number of them use the On-Pac recycling label. I think we will see more and more collaboration between local authorities and people up the supply chain selling the plastics in the first place to get those consistent messages.

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Jamie Hailstone

Jamie Hailstone

journalist

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