Plastics forge ahead

Strong growth in plastics recycling is set to continue in the UK as a stream of new initiatives get underway, says Andrew Simmons

Recycling of used plastics continues to grow at an impressive rate in the UK. 2005 figures show that 414,000 tonnes of packaging plastics were recovered for recycling from a total of around 2 million tonnes of plastic waste. Although packaging items represent the main post-use plastics recycled, there are a growing number of plastics streams - agricultural, electrical, electronic, and construction - that are being recycled, and there are initiatives to recycle more plastics from shredded end of life vehicles.

The recent growth in packaging recycling has been driven by a strong increase in the collection of post-consumer bottles from households. A survey of local authorities funded by WRAP and carried out by Recoup has revealed that 11.5 million households - almost half of all UK homes - now have access to kerbside plastic bottle collection facilities.

In this survey over 90 LAs stated that their plastic recycling collection schemes cost "little or no extra" compared to collection for landfill disposal. In 2006, based on existing recycling infrastructure, it is estimated that 90 kilo tonnes (kt) of plastic bottles will be collected - compared to under 37kt in 2004.

All sectors look strong
There is good evidence that collection of plastic containers and other packaging from offices and commercial sites will also grow. Initiatives such as 'Recycling Zone' - which demonstrated the affordability of plastic bottle and cans collections from offices - highlight that the large amount of plastics used away from home can be collected for recycling.

The introduction of new legislation for farm waste, and a producer responsibility scheme for farm plastics, will push collections of plastics from farms - with several expanding schemes in place to collect and recycle plastic agricultural films. The implementation of the WEEE Directive will also drive supplies of plastics from electrical and electronic items for recycling - new plants are being installed to separate and recycle these plastics, although there are still some technical challenges due to the variety of polymers and additives used.

The market demand for commonly collected plastics remains strong and significantly outstrips supply. UK plastics recycling companies are generally operating under-capacity. Investment in modern reprocessing capacity is adding to the UK's capability to process plastics locally.

In addition, export markets have become increasingly competitive with high international demand for material. During 2005, 176kt (43%) of collected plastics packaging were recycled in the UK and almost 238kt (57%) were exported for recycling with the main markets being in Asia.

Trade data suggests a similar high export flow for other plastics waste. This trend has continued, with a greater proportion of material shipped to export markets in 2006 - driven by stronger pricing.

PRN surplus may affect price
Pricing for waste plastics has remained at historically high levels for over two years. This has been mainly due to high virgin plastics prices and in part supported by the value of PRNs for packaging plastics. However, there is evidence that there is an oversupply of plastics PRNs and prices have declined by £15-20 per tonne in 2006, which is putting some downward pressure on prices paid to collectors.

The availability of markets for post-consumer plastics is likely to be expanded as a result of programmes to put more collected HDPE and PET into new food grade packaging applications.

In the packaging sector, there has been growing work on 'closed loop' recycling - which is potentially important as collection levels increase. Boots, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Marks & Spencer have each incorporated between 30 and 50% of post consumer recycled PET (rPET) into packaging in trials to research and evaluate effectiveness of different combinations of recycled and virgin PET in both the food and non-food sector.

A project to put HDPE milk bottles back into new food grade has shown good results. WRAP has now launched a competition for the installation of new food grade HDPE recycling capacity in the UK.

Industry round-up
Glass co-ordination called for British Glass has called for a co-ordinated effort to maximise the benefits of glass recycling. The appeal follows figures which show that over 355,000 tonnes of glass were reprocessed or exported for reprocessing in the first quarter of 2006. The glass container industry believes the growth of mixed collection is jeopardising its ability to further reduce C02 emissions and save energy.

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