ESA publishes new quality standards for exported post-consumer plastics

The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has today (29 September) published its defined quality standard for post-consumer recycled plastics, in an attempt to encourage consistent standards across the sector.

baled plastics

In partnership with the British Plastics Federation (BPF), Recycling Association, and RECOUP, with consultation from ESA members, The Quality Standard for Recycled Plastics outpaces current regulation on the quality of baled post-consumer plastic materials set for export. It aims to ensure consistency of quality and set a benchmark for all operators to adhere to, which members agree to introduce in the next 12 months.

In this time, the collection and review of inspection and monitoring data will be used to develop and refine the standard over time to ensure it remains fit for purpose. Further, the guideline builds upon the ESA’s previously-published Standard for Responsible Export, while work is also underway to establish an agreed commercial standard for other secondary materials.

Currently both the Environment Agency (EA) and the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) see that materials should be substantially free of contamination, however neither give a definitive percentage limit for contamination, which the ESA claim resulted in ‘subjective’  judgements being disputed.

While the document does not intend to replace the position of current regulation, it aims to provide evidence of a clear, objective, commercial baseline standard agreed by those positioned along the post-consumer value-chain.

In the document, the ESA states that ‘although it makes reference to legislation, it is not intended to offer a comprehensive compendium of statutory requirements so due diligence should continue to be applied to ensure all legal requirements are met.’

Jacob Hayler, Executive Director of the ESA, said: “Setting and delivering high standards for the sector is a strategic priority for the ESA and, by establishing a clear, objective, quality standard, we hope to bring consistency to output quality and provide a useful reference tool for both sellers and buyers of this material – supporting a market that remains vital to the UK’s circular economy.”

Helen Jordan, Senior Recycling Issues Executive at the British Plastics Federation, commented: “Understanding the quality of material is key for the development of a circular economy and for effective plastic recycling to take place. The BPF supported the development of this quality standard for bales of plastic as it is essential that material destined overseas can be efficiently recycled.

“An aim within the BPF’s Recycling Roadmap was to eliminate the export of low-quality material and identifying and developing this standard is a step towards achieving this.”

Simon Ellin from the Recycling Association, said: “We are delighted to be part of a trade association partnership that has delivered a workable standard that all sectors of the industry can adopt. A key weakness in our day-to-day operations is the absence of tangible standards, but the standard we have now produced will not only help to improve quality, but should also facilitate clearer regulation, reduce risk and encourage investment.”

RECOUP’s CEO, Stuart Foster, added: “RECOUP has published and supported a number of bale specification documents over the years to try and encourage good practices. The opportunity to bring together previous guidance and support the development of a new relevant collaborative specifications document with the ESA, underpinned by practical current market requirements, was too good an opportunity to miss.

“We encourage the sector to make use of the new quality standards which will ensure the recycled plastic market demand and supply specifications are aligned.”

Cracking down on illegal waste exports

Such a move to ensure standards in quality of exported plastics follows ongoing pressure from MPs, destination countries, and the EA to stop illegal waste exports.

In July 2021, the EA sent a warning to waste and construction businesses to handle plastic properly in order to prevent the illegal mislabelling of contaminated materials as ‘low risk’ to the environment. A similar cry from MPs came in 2019, when a group of 35 called for a complete ban on the export of the UK’s plastic waste to developing countries.

Many typical destination countries have had to take action against these exports, with China banning all imports of solid waste from 2021. This echoed similar moves from Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, who all in 2018 restricted or halted imports, over fears that areas of Asia were becoming a ‘dumping ground’ for the world’s waste.