Plastic bottle recycling passes 50 per cent mark

New data from a national charity aimed at developing plastic recycling, RECycling of Used Plastics Ltd (Recoup), has found that 70 per cent of the 610,000 tonnes of plastics packaging recycled in 2011 came from domestic kerbside collections.

Sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline, Nampak Plastics and Wellman Recycling (Indorama Ventures), Recoup’s 2012 UK Household Plastics Collection Survey asked all local authorities in the UK to ‘provide an in-depth review of the infrastructure for the collection of household plastics for recycling in the UK’.

According to the report, 52 per cent of plastic bottles were collected for recycling in 2011, the first time this has passed the 50 per cent mark.

Kerbside bottle collections up 451 per cent

Owing to the UK population split, England collected the largest percentage of plastic bottles, standing at 81.8 per cent of the total. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland stood at 7.7 per cent, 6.8 per cent and 3.8 per cent respectively.

However, the survey reveals that Wales actually collected ‘higher than average volumes’ of plastic bottles in relation to its population.

Indeed, kerbside collection of plastic bottles saw ‘dramatic growth’ between 2005 and 2011, going from 46,918 tonnes to 258,545 tonnes, an increase of 451 per cent.

The collection of plastic pots, tubs and trays has seen similar growth, up 218 per cent between 2009 and 2011.

Bottle collection rate slowing

Although some areas of plastics recycling have seen significant increases, according to Recoup, the UK placed only 25th out of 29 European Union (EU) nations for plastic recycling and energy recovery.

Despite the fact that when plastic recycling alone is considered the UK ranks slightly better (22nd out of 29), this still represents a drop of seven places from 15th in 2010.

The report estimates that the remaining 48 per cent of plastic bottles that were not collected for recycling in the UK in 2011 cost over £24 million to dispose of. It further claims that, had they been recycled, they would have attracted a value of £63.7 million from reprocessors.

It also warns that ‘year on year bottle collection rate increases are slowing’, and that if collections of plastic pots, tubs and trays are to increase, ‘significant growth in UK handling, sorting and reprocessing infrastructure’ must be forthcoming.

The survey reveals that although 1,192,100 tonnes of rigid plastics packaging (592,100 tonnes of plastic bottles and up to 600,000 tonnes of pots, tubs and trays) entered UK waste and recycling systems in 2011, only 36 per cent of this – or 426,591 tonnes – was collected for recycling.

However, this is an increase of 19 per cent – 69,130 tonnes – on recycling collections from the previous year. Further, collections of plastic pots, tubs and trays for recycling jumped by 58 per cent in this period.

Future outlook

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has issued yearly targets for businesses concerning the recycling of paper, glass, wood, steel, aluminium and plastics for the period 2013-2017. Although the targets for most of these materials remain static or see only slight increases, the targets for plastic recycling increase by five per cent each year.

This means the plastic recycling target for 2017 is 57 per cent – up from 32 per cent in 2012 – a figure that the British Polythene Industries (BPI) plc has warned is ‘unachievable’.

These targets only apply to business that handle over 50 tonnes of plastics per year or have a turnover of over £2 million. For all other businesses and households the 2017 target is 42 per cent recycled, up from 24 per cent in 2012.

‘Compelling business case’ to recycle

Writing in the foreword to the report, Stuart Foster, Chief Executive Officer of Recoup, said: “It is a fantastic achievement that 426,000 tonnes of plastics packaging was collected from households for recycling in 2011. This represents almost 70 per cent of the total 610,000 tonnes of plastics packaging recycled, and household recycling has become the principal contributor towards achieving plastics packaging recycling targets.

“The estimated cost of landfilling or treating the plastic bottles and pots, tubs and trays placed in residual bins in 2011 provides a compelling business case to collect and recycle these plastics.”

He added: “Continued growth in household plastics packaging recycling will be necessary if the UK is serious about achieving the new five year plastics packaging recycling targets to 2017.

“Interventions and support are needed to ensure household plastics recycling not only increases to help achieve future plastic recycling targets, but also grows sustainably and produces material that can be supplied to the right reprocessors at the required quality.”

James Crick, Business Development Director at Nampak and member of the Recoup Board, continued: “To enable recycling rates to increase further, it is of fundamental importance that the government encourages investment in recycling and that both local authorities and consumers maintain their commitment.”

The group’s 2013 survey is due to be presented at the Recoup AGM and conference in September 2014.