Giving plastics a helping hand at the kerbside

Councils looking to add plastic packaging to their kerbside collections will benefit from a report due out shortly that will outline the cost implications of the different methods involved. Phillip Ward explains more

Increasing disposal costs, waste management legislation and climate change policy, coupled with growing public demand for greater recovery and reuse of plastics, has meant that recycling more household plastics packaging has become a priority for the UK recycling supply chain.

The description 'household plastic packaging' includes plastic bottles, non-bottle plastic packaging, rigid and flexible plastic items of various polymer types and colours sourced from the domestic waste stream. Around 86% of local authorities offer some sort of collection and recycling service for plastic bottles, but a lack of capacity and infrastructure to deal with other types of household plastic packaging - such as films and rigid plastic containers - means these materials typically end up in landfill.

This has not gone unnoticed by the public, who are putting pressure on local authorities to provide facilities to recycle more household plastic packaging. Accustomed to recycling a wide range of domestic waste, including paper, cans, and glass and plastic bottles, many householders are frustrated that there is little or no capacity to recycle a greater range of plastics from sources such as food packaging.

Low uptake exists
Currently, relatively few councils actively collect this material at the kerbside. Earlier WRAP research identified that there are concerns about the cost and practicalities of introducing such services. As a consequence, WRAP has embarked on a study to research these issues and will shortly publish its findings. The purpose of the report is to help local authorities understand what the costs of collecting more household plastic packaging might be - information that could be significant to them when they come to plan future collection strategies.

The WRAP collection costs study is using models to generate indicative results.

Modelling these costs has been a challenge for researchers because of the wide variations in circumstances, and in the recycling services they provide, between local authorities.

The approach WRAP has taken is to model a number of different collection systems for a single, specially constructed, notional local authority with 50,000 households - 48,000 of which are on the authority's collections service.

For the purposes of the study, these households have been divided into different housing types with logistical assumptions being applied to each type. Wherever possible, these input assumptions have been based on operational data and they have been discussed with industry stakeholders.

Researchers have also modelled indicative baseline costs for collecting a range of recyclate, including plastic bottles, using four different methods - co-mingled collections, two-stream collections, kerbside-sort collections and bring systems.

These costs can then be compared with the costs which include the additional collection of rigid plastic packaging and, separately, rigid plastic packaging with plastic films. The cost difference between the baseline and variant models will provide the indicative incremental costs for collecting household plastic packaging from the domestic waste stream.

Taking a long-term view
An important consideration for researchers has been the assumptions used for gate fees and the income generated from the sale of collected materials, both of which can vary widely between areas and over time.

In order to give a long term view of material prices, wherever possible, materials values have been based on averages generated from the market pricing report and other data collected by WRAP's economists in the past two years.

When published, the collection costs study will complement the work of a number of other project reports that have been carried out into a number of different aspects of sorting and processing recyclables as a result of adding mixed plastics to collections. One of these reports, conducted by WRAP in 2008, has already revealed that there are strong environmental benefits from recycling plastics to replace virgin polymers, and that the technology used to recycle plastics from the domestic waste stream to produce high value material is technically viable.

WRAP's next step has been to carry out large-scale trials to assess the feasibility of recycling mixed plastics on a commercial scale. These trials, which are due to publish their results in the summer of 2009, aim to develop the foundations of the mixed plastics recycling infrastructure and, ultimately, provide consumers with a potential solution for recycling more.

The report on collection costs should give a good indication of the incremental costs local authorities may face if they decide to collect more household plastic packaging and, as such, it will be a vital reference. The study will form a body of evidence that will give the recycling supply chain the advice and confidence it needs to ensure that more household plastic packaging is collected and recycled in the future.

Phillip Ward is director of local government services at WRAP

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