New plan for plastics recycling from Veolia and RECOUP
The report, titled ‘Plan for Plastics: The circular solution’, was released yesterday (20 September) and asks more than 2,000 people a range of questions about their expectations and understanding of recycled plastic packaging. The results reveal that a huge number of people are in favour of more recycled content in products: 93 per cent of those surveyed expected plastic bottles to contain recycled materials, and 55 per cent thought ‘all of most’ of the bottle would be made of recycled plastic. In reality, most bottles and packaging tend to use less than 15 per cent recycled content.
So what is keeping manufacturers from upping the recycled content of their products? Partly it is the added cost of using recycled plastics – due to a lower market demand, these materials currently cost more than virgin plastics.
Acknowledging this barrier, the survey also asked whether people would be willing to pay more for bottles with recycled content – and over half (51 per cent) said they would stump up an average of 2.5 pence more for a recycled bottle than for one with no recycled content. The report states that a price rise of this level would raise £325 million annually in the UK at current rates of plastic bottle usage – a price incentive that could be the extra encouragement needed for manufacturers to get behind using recycled content in their products.
‘Plastic packaging can be complex but increasing recycling rates can be simple’
Conducted in partnership with plastics recycling organisation RECOUP, the report also sets out three key ways the UK could improve its record on plastic recycling. One of these is to increase the use of recycled content in packaging; as Richard Kirkman, Veolia’s Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, commented: “The British public have told us they expect plastic bottles to be made of recycled content. We see 50 per cent recycled content for plastic bottles and 30 per cent for plastic packaging as realistic ambitions for every manufacturer to aim for within the next 10 years. When more packaging is both recyclable and made from recycled material, it will be the shift needed for recycled plastic to become mainstream.”
Another measure identified in the report is to simplify recycling with clearer labelling, telling consumers exactly what to do with their items – this, the report states, would result in more plastic waste being collected, and more recycled plastic available for reuse. Deposit return schemes, better on-the-go recycling infrastructure and more consistency of collections around the UK are all identified as key areas for investment.
The standardisation of packaging is also highlighted as a key measure to improve plastic recycling: the report calls for consistently sustainable design across industry, using easy-to-recycle materials. Moreover, policies should be considered that penalise products that are more complex to recycle, while rewarding those producers who meet environmental goals. This concept of incentivisation has been suggested multiple times by sector groups calling for reform to the UK’s producer responsibility system, including the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) and, most recently, waste management company SUEZ.
Commenting on the report, Kirkman said: “Plastic packaging can be complex but increasing recycling rates can be simple. Veolia is in a unique position, holding a bird’s eye view over the end-to-end plastic recycling process, and in this report with industry experts RECOUP, we recommend three clear ways for the UK to become a champion of plastic recycling – both environmentally and economically – setting the standard for the next decade.
“Veolia is planning to invest £1 billion in recycling and recovery infrastructure in the UK over the next five years. It is up to designers, manufacturers and government to ensure supply matches our stake; so more plastic is collected and sorted to a higher quality standard. We owe it to future generations to make circular and sustainable living this country’s priority.”
Stuart Foster, RECOUP’s Chief Executive Officer, added: “There is more focus on plastic and sustainability than ever before, and that needs to be matched with action and progress. With circular economy and extended producer responsibility currently under debate, this is the ideal time to acknowledge the key issues and challenge current thinking.”
RECOUP’s plastics collection survey
Alongside this joint report with Veolia, RECOUP has launched its annual ‘UK Household Plastics Collections Survey’ examining the rate of kerbside collections of different types of plastics.
The survey reveals that 527,010 tonnes of plastic packaging was collected from UK households for recycling in 2017 – with a collection rate of 59 per cent for plastic bottles and 33 per cent for pots, tubs and trays.
While there is steady progress in the amount of plastic packaging collected for recycling, RECOUP reports that quality is increasingly becoming a issue – something the organisation puts down in part to ‘consumer confusion’ and mixed messages about where exactly different materials should go.
RECOUP’s Technical Manager, Steve Morgan, stated: “Although plastic bottles have seen the biggest increase in collections for 3 years, with volatile export markets the drive for quality is needed throughout the plastics recycling value chain.
“The opportunities are there. There are still nearly 600,000 tonnes of rigid plastics packaging that could be collected for recycling, but the consumer is often unaware how they can make a difference by their individual actions, both by what plastics packaging they can recycle in their local area and how to present it for recycling.
“There is still work to be done to develop reliable markets for some fractions of plastics, and to remove some of the discrepancies within the detail of how pot and tray recycling messages are given to the public.”
Significantly, the report notes that 91 per cent of local authorities are targeting contamination in their messaging to residents, while 49 per cent are planning communications about plastics recycling specifically, showing that despite budget cuts for council waste and recycling there is still a desire to continue to improve services.
RECOUP’s own ‘Cutting the Confusion’ campaign has been working with local authorities across the UK to help them educate consumers about the methods and importance of plastic recycling.
The full report can be downloaded from the RECOUP website.