#BreakFreeFromPlastic: Yes we can (recycle plastic bags)

On International Plastic Bag Free Day (3 July), let's consider the facts: the UK is still addicted to plastic bags. Even after the 5p charge was implemented in October 2015, supermarkets still sold 640 million plastic bags in just six months.

#BreakFreeFromPlastic: Yes we can (recycle plastic bags)

The UK consumed a whopping 7.64 billion plastic bags a year before the charge – an extraordinary drop of billions of bags because of the tiny 5p charge.

So, however much we reduce our consumption of plastic bags, through using sustainable solutions and re-using them, we must look at ways to deal with what we do still use – because there will be a few million of them. And, the further good news is that, contrary to popular belief, those remaining 640 million bags that we do still use can be recycled.

Plastic bags are classified as ‘plastic films’ in waste terms, alongside packaging, carrier bags, and labels; in the UK we generate 414,000 tons of plastic film every year. The collection, separation and recycling of plastic film is not widely implemented in this country, but there is slow progress.

‘Back-of-store’ recycling of commercial plastic films – e.g. that of the film covering food palettes – has been commonplace for some time and has more recently been joined by ‘front of store’ collection points for plastic bags and food packaging, including at some Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose branches.

Post-consumer plastic film is also collected and recycled by some local authorities. According to a report by Recoup, 20% of authorities in the UK currently offer kerbside collection of plastic film, including Cambridge, Swindon and Oxford. Although this currently falls far behind the widespread collection of other recyclables (e.g. glass, paper and plastic bottles) largely thanks to technical difficulties and associated added costs – it often gets trapped in equipment and mixed up with other materials – it does represent a step forwards in the ‘long march’ for the ‘dirty man of Europe’, the UK, to clean up its act.

Whichever way it is collected, the plastic film is often then exported abroad for sorting and processing, for example to CeDo in the Netherlands, where it is given a new lease of life as other products such as bin bags, or is used for energy recovery. 

This gives us a clue as to where to look for inspiration as the UK tries to develop its capabilities in the recycling of plastic film. Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Austria are far ahead of us in terms of the amount of plastic film that is recycled, and avoids ending up on landfill. Having long had initiatives such as bottle deposit schemes in place, they now collect lightweight packaging and send it to facilities where it is sorted on site. Larger pieces are recycled, while smaller pieces of ‘mixed plastic product’ are used for energy recovery. This standardised system works better than the UK’s current one as the process includes fewer organisations, making the supply chain more streamlined and therefore economically viable. The other crucial difference is the existence of EPRO schemes. These schemes help fund recycling by taxing packaging, but also by acting as a source of information and cohesion across the packaging and waste sector.

Innovation is key to modernising recycling and ensuring less plastic film and other waste ends up in landfill. An example is the Turbosorter®, a piece of equipment which uses airflow to prevent pieces of lightweight material such as plastic film from moving around the conveyor, allowing for more accurate detection and sorting: given contamination is currently a key barrier to film recycling in the UK, this is an important development.

So, three simple, life-affirming, facts: plastic bags are recyclable, councils are doing it and the UK is moving in the right direction on this front. Slowly, but it is exciting all the same.

So, three simple, life-affirming, facts: plastic bags are recyclable, councils are doing it and the UK is moving in the right direction on this front. Slowly, but it is exciting all the same. These simple facts challenge a recent edie blog written by the managing director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) – so I would welcome a response.

This article was written by Alex Findlay – a consultant to Clear Public Space – and Luke Douglas-HomeAdditional support was also provided by Richard McKinlay of Axion Consulting.

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