Report: UK could recycle three times as much plastic by 2030

The UK could recycle 3.5 times as much plastic in 2030 as it did in 2019, if the government works with the private and public sectors to accelerate investment in collection and processing infrastructure.

Brexit, waste import bans from developing nations and the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy are likely to increase the appetite for more recycling infrastructure in the UK

Brexit, waste import bans from developing nations and the forthcoming Resources and Waste Strategy are likely to increase the appetite for more recycling infrastructure in the UK

That is the headline finding of a new roadmap report from the British Plastics Federation (BPF) – the trade body representing businesses which manufacture raw plastics, process the material and manufacture machinery used to create and recycle plastic packaging and products.

Taking into account trends like the ban on plastic waste imports by nations like China, and the impact of Brexit on resources and waste policy in the UK, the report concludes that the UK is likely to increase its plastics recycling capacity in the near future. The extent to which capacity will increase and the amount of plastic processed will increase, however, depends on decisions which policymakers and businesses make in the short-term.

In the best-case scenario, the BPF estimates that the equivalent of just 1% of the plastic produced domestically will be landfilled in 2030. The amount of plastic successfully recycled within the UK will be three-and-a-half higher than it was in 2019, and no low-quality plastic waste will be exported.

For this scenario to be realised, Defra will need to use the Resources and Waste Strategy to implement a universal plastic waste collection framework across all local authorities. The Local Government Association has previously described the array of different rules as a “smorgasbord” which confuses residents and leads to contamination. Consultations on the strategy, timetabled for 2020, were pushed back to 2021 by Defra due to Covid-19.

The Department is also being urged to increase investment in new recycling technologies to tackle items that are currently hard-to-recycle. According to the BPF, the amount of material processed in the UK could increase by sixty times with accelerated and holistic support for mechanical and chemical recycling innovations.

According to the report, the UK Government will also need to expand its focus on plastics from packaging used in households to products and packaging used by businesses. Particular plastics ‘hotspots’, where use is high and recycling rates are low, include construction and agriculture. Households should also be supported to recycle durable plastic products, like components used in cars and electronics, as well as single-use packaging. To this latter point, E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream and recycling rates have stagnated over the past five years.

The BPF estimates that the global market for plastic recycling could grow to £31bn by 2025 – if nations focus on the sector through their economic recovery planning for Covid-19. It is encouraging UK ministers to ensure that the nation benefits from this trend and has already secured informal support from Rebecca Pow.

“With the right collaborative effort, we have the potential to be a leading light when it comes to rapidly developing the technology and infrastructure to recycle far more plastic,” BPF director-general Philip Law said.

Reuse and recycling innovations

Public awareness of the fact that just 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled has been rising ever since Blue Planet 2 aired in 2017. People are also increasingly skeptical of the drawbacks of traditional mechanical plastic recycling. Items like black plastic and flexible film, for example, are hard to process, and even recyclable items can only complete a few cycles before material quality deteriorates significantly.

As such, reuse and refill systems have been growing in popularity. But this model is still not mainstream – an Ellen MacArthur study found that just 2% of the products sold by the world's biggest consumer goods firms in 2020 came in reusable packaging.

Many businesses point to arguments against refill and reuse in some situations, including food safety and increased cost for consumers. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that investments in recycling innovations are increasing. edie recently named chemical plastic recycling as one of its eight innovations to watch in 2021 following increased investments from companies including NestleUnileverTesco and Henkel, as well as the UK Government.

Sarah George



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