Recovery on the rise for post-consumer plastics

Volumes of post-consumer plastics recovered for recycling have increased sharply in recent years, according to a recent report

According to the British Plastics Federation (BPF), UK industry consumes 4.8m tonnes of polymers a year and produces some 2.5m tonnes of end product. Packaging accounts for the largest area of demand, making up 40% of UK polymer supply, followed by construction products (22%) and electrical equipment, housewares, agricultural products and vehicle manufacture (30%).

The volumes of post-consumer plastics recovered for recycling have increased sharply in recent years from an estimated 535 kilo tonnes in 2005 to just under 1,000 kilo tonnes in 2010. This is one of the key findings to emerge in Plastics Recycling Market Report - UK 2011-2015 Analysis, the fourth edition of AMA Research's detailed assessment of the nation's plastics recycling market.

The market researchers' latest report, published in September, provides an in-depth overview of consumption patterns as well as plastic waste arisings, the plastics recycling market and market structure. One of the notable findings to come out of the report is that there is a substantial ongoing increase in private sector investment in plastic recycling infrastructure.

Currently there is around 60 kilo tonnes per annum coming on stream in 2011, a further 80-100 kilo tonnes per annum in 2012, 50-70 kilo tonnes per annum in 2013 and possibly 200 kilo tonnes per annum or more 2014-2020. As the market is evolving, these figures may understate real growth rates.

The report shows that since 2007, a number of companies, including Closed Loop London, ECO Plastics, Biffa Polymers and Jayplas, have made a substantial investment in expanding capacity, particularly in the area of closed loop packaging recycling. As the market research reveals, some of the larger companies involved in recycling plastic waste are divisions of plastics products manufacturers but most are dedicated plastic waste reprocessors.

Given the increasing investment, perhaps not surprisingly, the volumes of post-consumer plastics recovered for recycling have been increasing in recent years from an estimated 535 kilo tonnes in 2005 to just under 1,000 kilo tonnes in 2010. AMA Research anticipates that further growth will reach between 1,590 kilo tonnes and 1,870 kilo tonnes in 2015. The majority of plastic waste that is recovered is exported to China.

Interestingly, the report suggests that the improvement in the development of a more cohesive plastic waste collection system in China could see a shift among Chinese reprocessors away from importing towards sourcing locally. This would obviously be good news for UK reprocessors as it would mean more material would become available.

On this issue of UK reprocessor output, it is clear that any increase is dependent on a range of macro-economic and political developments. AMA Research identifies a number of key market factors that are expected to drive up volumes of waste collected for reprocessing and UK reprocessing output.

These include a commitment from WRAP to provide financial and technical support; an increase in the private sector investment in plastic recycling infrastructure; increases in the collection of bottle waste; increases in recycled content in PET and HDPE bottles; increases in volumes of waste electrical and electronic equipment collected reflecting regulatory change in 2007; and higher prices for virgin polymers than recycled alternatives underpinned by high global oil prices.

But the report also identifies important factors that could constrain growth rates, such as a decrease in the volume of suitable plastics waste arisings due to a decline in the levels of household/commercial consumption and/or greater levels of reuse.

Other factors that could have a negative impact include an increased or sustained demand from Chinese reprocessors that offer more competitive prices to UK operators of material recycling facilities or plastic recycling facilities; higher levels of competition among UK reprocessors for limited higher quality feedstock; and competitive pricing for virgin materials. The role of consumers is prominent in the study findings.

The research indicates that household/consumer plastic recycling has been focused very much on bottles. As collection systems have expanded to meet this, the volumes of bottle recycling have increased to over 263 kilo tonnes in 2009. The development of the UK's "bottle-to-bottle" or closed loop reprocessing plants suggests that there will be a further improvement in bottle waste recycling.


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