Collection and content: How can councils address the 'smorgasbord' of plastics to boost recycling?
Councils have urged manufacturers to scrap a "smorgasbord" of plastics used for food packaging in order to increase recycling rates, although the industry has suggested that the lack of consistency of council recycling collection systems also needs addressing.
The Local Government Association (LGA) published analysis on Saturday (4 August) outlining that just a third of household plastics are currently recycled. According to the LGA, the onus is on manufacturers and councils to collaborate on single-polymer solutions or packaging the removes low-grade and non-recyclable polymers, such as polystyrene.
The analysis found that 525,000 tonnes of plastic pots, trays and tubs are used by UK households each year, but just 169,145 tonnes are able to be recycled.
The issue plaguing councils and recyclers is that food packaging usually consists of a variety of polymers, which need to be separated out to be recycled. However, items like ice cream tubs and yoghurt pots consist of low-grade polymers, while microwavable trays consist of “black plastic” that is coloured using carbon black pigments which can’t be detected by optical sorting systems used in recycling centres. As a result, black plastic often ends up in landfill or recycled into lower value materials.
Councils claim they have done all they can on the issue. Around 99% of councils collect plastic bottles for recycling and 77% collect plastic pots, tubs and trays. The LGA is calling on the Government to consider a ban on low-grade plastics and for producers and manufacturers to contribute to the cost of collection and disposal.
The LGA’s environment spokesperson, Cllr Judith Blake, said: “It’s time for manufacturers to stop letting a smorgasbord of unrecyclable and damaging plastic flow into our environment. We’ve been calling for producers of unrecyclable material to develop a plan to stop this from entering the environment for years.
“If manufacturers don’t want to get serious about producing material which can be recycled and protecting our environment, then they should at least contribute towards the cost that local taxpayers have to pay to clear it up. We need an industry-wide, collaborative approach where together we can reduce the amount of material having an impact on the environment. But if industry won’t help us get there, then the Government should step in to help councils ensure we can preserve our environment for generations to come.”
Collaborative efforts are already in place to help improve the recyclability of certain plastics. Supermarket giants Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer (M&S) have all collaborated to introduce a solution for hard-to-recycle black plastic that places recycled content into food-grade packaging.
The supermarkets worked with recycling and packaging production firm Viridor on the recycled solution, which will enable 120 tonnes of plastic to be recycled in the UK every month, with the volume expected to rise over the next 18 months.
But while retailers and manufacturers collaborate on packaging solutions, questions are being asked of current collection methods. A host of UK packaging organisations have called for more recycling collection points, tax reliefs for recycled content and a universal list of acceptable materials as part of a desired regulation reform to make it easier for consumers to recycle packaging waste.
Another headline recommendation is uniform recycling collections across all local authorities in the UK, which packaging groups claim will enable the reuse of waste streams and encourage higher plastic recycling rates than the current proportion of just 38% nationwide.
Responding to the LGA analysis, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment’s (INCPEN) chief executive Paul Vanston noted the importance of collaboration to improve plastic recycling but also suggested that the “smorgasbord” wasn’t limited to plastics, but also to the collection services as well.
“The ‘smorgasbord’ that the LGA refers to in its press release actually exists in several parts of how the value chain operates,” Vanston said. “This includes councils’ packaging recycling collections. Citizens, governments and the value chain see an array of differing recycling collections that the 300+ councils offer, even when they are next door to each other, and especially in England.
“Personally, I think there is greater consistency of packaging recycling collections across councils than many think, especially in terms of packaging formats that are recycled. But this solid foundation is what gives rise to my optimism that local government, and the LGA in particular, can remove their existing blocks to having full consistency of packaging recycling collections.”
Vanston added that consistent collection systems, alongside “unambiguous consumer labelling” could be introduced simultaneously by 2023 to help turn the tide on plastic waste.
However, barriers do still exist and were noted by the LGA, regarding funding and cost contributions towards improving the recyclability of plastics.
Producer Responsibility Obligations (PROs) create a legal obligation for packaging producers to ensure that a proportion of their marketed products are recovered and recycled. Businesses can show evidence of their compliance by purchasing Packaging Recovery Notes (PRNs).
For the UK, this cost is around €20 per tonne, but other European nations have an average of around €150 per tonne. PROs from UK businesses currently contribute to just 10% of the cost of waste disposal, with taxpayers paying the remaining 90%. According to the LGA, this limited compliance scheme generated £111m in 2013, of which just £37m went towards collection. In contrast, it costs local authorities £550m to collect and sort packaging material.
The likes of Coca-Cola and Tesco have both voiced beliefs that the PRO system should be overhauled, with MPs currently scrutinising alternatives as part of the UK's Resources and Waste Strategy, which is expected to be launched later this year.