Opinion: The plastics recycling landscape

Paul Rendle-Barnes, Director of Recycling at Indigo Environmental shares his views on the role local plastics recycling can and should play in achieving a circular economy in the UK.

Should we advocate local plastics recycling to achieve a circular economy?

For many years, waste exports – especially illegal ones of the plastic type – have been the subject of many national media headlines.

And more recently, as policies have been developed, public awareness has grown, and industry standards have risen, the conversation has turned to how we as a country can remedy this.

Paul Rendle-Barnes, director of recycling at Indigo Environmental

The notion of a circular – less linear – economy is nothing new, it has been at the center of government policy and corporate initiatives for a number of years. Implementing measures to reduce and recycle plastic waste was widely seen as a way to make this happen.

But the truth is that our country is still not where it needs to be to get the most out of its resources, especially plastic. It is estimated that five million tons of plastic are used each year – almost half of that is packaging – so it’s not surprising that more needs to be done.

Exports

Looking back at the beginnings of packaging regulations, it cannot be denied that exports definitely helped kickstart the diversion of raw materials from landfill – but was it actually more beneficial?

It may have appeared that way on the surface. But back then, in countries like China, Malaysia, Russia and other less developed countries, it really happened that this material was imported and faced with the same fateful end-point as what should be avoided in the UK – landfill or worse, illegal dumping.

Plastics in the ocean have been highlighted by the Blue Planet series (Image: Shutterstock)

Only last year the BBC documented shocking images of unsorted plastic waste dumped on the roadside in Turkey and burned. It’s still happening and it has to stop.

In the rush to ship the country’s plastic waste overseas, the unintended consequence of causing severe plastic pollution – and endangering the world’s oceans – was firmly brought to the attention of the general public in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series.

And this seems to have been a positive catalyst for spreading awareness, alongside promoting reform and changing attitudes towards our waste.

A change in the plastic flood

Fortunately, many blue chip companies have explored the possibilities and implementation programs that encourage greater sustainability in the design, reuse, and recycling of products. The GHG service “recycle: me”, the recycling rewards program “Boots” and the “Second Chance” from Amazon are just three of the many initiatives that we would like to start in the UK.

Over 120 companies are now part of the British plastics pact.

Greater consumer awareness arguably played a major role in making this a reality.

Businesses know they will be held accountable by people who want businesses to have authentic environmental badges. The times of “greenwashing” companies are over.

And this surge in genuine care for our planet and its resources promises renewed growth in the circular economy.

However, a multi-faceted approach to the life cycle of the material needs to be taken, starting with the design and manufacture of the material – recyclability and segregation need to be considered from the start.

More and more companies need to implement reverse logistics for the packaging they supply

More and more companies have to implement reverse logistics for the packaging they supply in order not only to take responsibility for the products they sell, but also to meet the increasing environmental requirements of end consumers. As a result, this offers plastic recyclers significant opportunities to access raw materials.

value

In addition, the value must always remain in the product – during use, during reuse and / or after recycling. This will help eradicate the “throw away” mentality that we accidentally resorted to.

“Onshoring” our plastic waste is critical to moving forward. The truth is that wherever possible, all waste streams should be recycled in the country of origin.

Not only is this more environmentally friendly – it causes lower transport costs and, in turn, less CO2 emissions – but in the case of the UK we can use the resource potential of our own waste and reduce our dependence on export.

Redistribution within the UK system is helping to strengthen our own economy and environmental awareness, but it also closes the cycle of dependency and promotes infrastructure progress and capacity increases – instead of using exports as a scapegoat for our country’s own underinvestment.

Indeed, the British Plastics Federation’s “A Recycling Roadmap for 2030” addresses this and how the combination of an increase in recycling rates, minimal dependency on landfills and substandard material exports are key factors in driving positive change in the UK.

This “indigenous” approach needs to be promoted and coordinated through national standards and collaboration

As a result, the answer to the question is, “Should we advocate local plastics recycling to help the country become a circular economy?” is yes. But there is one caveat.

Indigenous

This “homemade” approach needs to be driven and coordinated through national standards and cross-industry collaboration to enable real and unanimous reuse of quality.

Of course, further advances such as deposit return systems, uniform collections between different local authorities and the 2022 plastic packaging tax – which will apply to plastic packaging made or imported by the UK and which does not contain at least 30% recycled material – will be significantly welcomed.

However, if these standards do not apply nationwide and not everyone involved in the plastics value chain is on the same environmental wavelength, recycling is only done on lip service and is not circular at all. It’s just a distraction or delay when the material turns to waste.

If this happens, if we have tried and invested in closing the loop, we have learned nothing at all – and that would be a real shame for the nation and the future of our planet.

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