Household plastic film: UK recycling capacity faces shortfall

A new WRAP report has revealed an increase in the number of consumer flexible plastics entering the market, with the quantity rising by 55,000 tonnes between the years 2019-2021.

Plastic filmThe figure comes as the UK faces an extended shortfall in recycling capacity, with the country facing further accumulation of film in the coming years with no scope for reuse in the food chain.

The report finds that 60 UK local authorities (representing 16 per cent) reported collecting at least one type of plastic film at the kerbside in 2021 – a figure that marks a one per cent decline from the year prior.

Among the local authorities participating in collection schemes, 28 (eight per cent) collected cling film, 36 (10 per cent) collected films and food bags, 58 (16 per cent) collected carrier bags, 22 (six per cent) collected 'other pouches,' and 17 (five per cent) collected all types of films.

This equates to 14,000 tonnes of film collected in kerbside collections in 2020/2021, signifying a 3,000-tonne increase from the previous year whilst the total recycling rate remained stagnant at four per cent.

Plastic film recycling

Flexible plastics are also collected through front-of-store collection points across all of the UK’s major supermarket chains. During 2021, 5,080 of such collection points were in operation with a total of 1,390 tonnes of material collected during the year. As of October 2022, 6,027 collection points exist whilst Wrap claims the collected tonnage data remains unavailable.

Front-of-store collection points are currently in use as an interim measure prior to the mandatory kerbside collection of plastic films across all local authorities in England by 2027 in line with the Government’s ‘Simpler Recycling’ reforms and is acting as a means to identify and outline the case for further infrastructural investment.

WRAP's internal research revealed that the UK's total plastic film reprocessing capacity stood at approximately 235 kt in 2021, with 190 kt specifically allocated for packaging. However, municipal recycling, a crucial component of this system, currently contributes only a small fraction to the overall reprocessing capacity.

Looking ahead, WRAP forecasts an expansion in the UK's plastic film reprocessing capacity. An additional 115kt of capacity is planned over the next five years; if fully realised, this would elevate the UK's total film plastic packaging reprocessing capacity to over 350 kt.

Despite this increase, it's projected that this capacity would still represent just over half of the flexible packaging currently placed on the market. This scenario suggests a significant gap in domestic reprocessing capacity, with the report underscoring the need for further efforts to enhance recycling rates.

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