£1bn investment could end UK plastic waste exports, says Viridor research

Research conducted by global sustainability activator Anthesis and commissioned by Viridor has found that an investment of £1 billion in recycling would ‘end UK plastic exports’, with plastic collected for recycling forecast to increase by 45 per cent by 2035.

Plastic exportAccording to the study, the UK ‘already lacks sufficient recycling infrastructure’, noting that the country exports 0.5Mt of waste plastic for recycling every year. Without investment, the study says, the infrastructure gap will increase to 1Mt per year for sorting and 0.64Mt per year for reprocessing plastic by 2035. This will ‘increase exports of waste plastic and lose valuable material from the UK economy’.

Around 2.3Mt of plastic packaging is currently used in the UK, the study says, and only 54 per cent of this is collected for recycling. The research finds that the amount of plastic packaging collected for recycling could increase from 1.3Mt to 1.8-1.9 Mt per year, driven by policy reforms designed to drive up stagnating recycling rates.

The research – ‘Bridging the Gap: Ending the UK’s Reliance on Plastic WasteExport’ – found that fully recycling all of this material back to raw materials in the UK represents a £1bn investment in building new plastics sorting and reprocessing facilities. According to Viridor and Antithesis, this investment could see an extra 46 facilities built across the UK, creating 1,100 permanent skilled green jobs and a further 975 across the supply chain, as well as an economic benefit of ‘£3 billion’ over 25 years.

The study added that investment into plastics sorting and reprocessing facilities holds the potential to recycle an ‘additional 14-16 million tonnes of plastic’ in the UK over the same period, ‘saving 35 million tonnes of carbon emissions’.

By creating jobs and economic growth, the build of new facilities would also assist regions around the UK with the ‘Government’s Levelling Up agenda’. Virdor highlighted that the North West would benefit the most, with a potential £400 million of the investment spreading across 15 facilities, creating 420 jobs and delivering local economic benefits of £1 billion across 25 years.

Anthesis gathered its research through one-to-one interviews with investors, identifying interest but also ‘substantial barriers’ to investment in the recycling sector – these included ‘price volatility in markets for recycled plastics’ and short-term contracts in the recycling sector.

Long-term contracts of at least ten years are needed to create ‘the stable revenues necessary to deliver multi-million pound investment[s]’, Viridor says, although the sector currently has contract lengths of only three to five years on average.

In March 2022, Viridor’s Avonmouth plastics reprocessing centre opened, designed to process 80,000 tonnes of plastic every year. Viridor claims that the centre will allow the company to recycle more than 90 per cent of the plastics it previously exported from the UK.

Anna Brockhaus, Consultant at Anthesis, said: “Our research shows how investment in high quality plastics recycling infrastructure is not only critical to drive down waste and carbon emissions, but that this could also unlock economic benefits across the UK.

“We are at a pivotal point for both resource use and reducing emissions, and the opportunities identified in this research are key to creating a more sustainable world.”

Dr. Tim Rotheray, Director of ESG at Viridor added: “When people put out their plastic recycling each week, they expect that material to be recycled in the UK. Ending plastic waste export is not only the right thing to do but also a major employment opportunity across the UK.

“New policy could unlock up to £1 billion in new industrial facilities up and down the country. Businesses are ready to invest and policy reforms have the potential to address the barriers identified in this report, while putting the UK on track for a circular plastics economy.”