Viridor report urges Government to ban plastic waste exports

Viridor has today (2 December) unveiled its ‘Vision for Zero’ plan, in which it calls on the Government to enact policy measures that will enable the UK to process all of its plastic waste domestically through investment in recycling and reprocessing facilities.

‘Vision for Zero’

Waste shipmentsThe ‘Vision for Zero’ plan is set out in the company’s circular economy for plastics report, and proposes a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach to recycling – which it says will significantly increase the number of times plastics can be recycled – alongside a ban on all plastics that are difficult to recycle. The cradle to cradle approach, originally proposed by German chemist Michael Braungart and American architect William McDonough, is an approach to design that seeks to mimic nature’s processes, often referred to as ‘regenerative design’.

The report, entitled ‘Closing the Loop: Viridor’s roadmap to a truly circular plastics economy’, highlights the significant role that recycling plastics can play in ensuring the UK achieves net-zero. It also points to the significant environmental and economic contribution that the circular economy for plastic could make if all UK plastic waste was recycled and reprocessed in the UK.

The report was launched at a Viridor stakeholder event held at its Avonmouth plastics reprocessing and recycling and energy-from-waste (EfW) plant, which is scheduled to open early next year. The plant will reprocess over 80,000 tonnes of plastic, delivering a 90 per cent reduction in Viridor’s plastics exports, and, the company states, an 8 per cent reduction in total UK plastics exports.

In its announcement, Viridor outlines the emissions reductions that could be delivered by boosting the UK’s plastic packaging recycling rate. If the figure was increased from 51 per cent to 70 per cent, an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of CO2 could be saved, the company says. Currently, the UK recycles 1.17 million tonnes of its plastic waste each year, with over 600,000 tonnes of plastic for recycling and reprocessing currently being exported.

The company maintains that if five plastics recycling plants, similar to its Avonmouth plant, were built, plastic waste exports from the UK could be ended. These plants would require an estimated £1.5 billion of investment, and, according to Viridor, would generate nearly 700 construction and operations jobs.

In order to deliver the termination of plastic waste exports, Viridor recommends that the plastics used by industry, especially in food and packaging, should be restricted to just four types – drinks bottles (PET), milk bottles (HDPE), bottle caps/tops (PP), and films (LDPE) – to make plastic recycling and reprocessing easier. This would mean banning the routine use of plastics like PVC, expanded polystyrene, and oxydegradable plastics.

Investing in infrastructure

The stated £1.5 billion investment, Viridor says, could be delivered by restructuring the recycling and reprocessing industry’s contractual arrangements so that they resemble those of other infrastructure sectors, such as energy from waste and offshore wind. This, the waste management company asserts, would include the introduction of longer-term contracts of at least 10 years, which would ‘create the stable revenues needed to deliver multi-million-pound investment’.

Currently, the sector has an average contract length of between 3-5 years, with Viridor pointing to the offshore wind sector’s 15-year ‘contracts for difference’, which guarantee a fixed price for energy suppliers, as a model to aspire to. Further, the company urges that the Waste and Resources sector be designated as ‘critical infrastructure’ in the same way as water, health, energy and defence, in recognition of the role it plays.

Key pledges

Viridor sets out the following five key pledges as part of its contribution to creating a circular economy for waste plastics in the UK:

1.       End plastic waste export

2.       Drive an infrastructure market for recycling

3.       Expand operations to hard-to-recycle materials

4.       Extract plastics from general waste and drive novel reprocessing techniques

5.       Drive innovation and regulatory improvement to achieve complete plastic circularity

The ‘missing element’

Kevin Bradshaw, CEO of Viridor, said: “Reviewing how we extract raw materials, manufacture products and consume them is an essential but often missing element of how we need to tackle climate change. The UK’s ambitious targets for Net Zero will only be achieved if we tap into the resources that we all throw away today and improve recycling rates and capacity in the UK to deliver a more circular economy.

“Ending the export of plastic waste can become a reality through stimulating infrastructure investment in recycling and reprocessing and by working more collaboratively between industry, local and central Government.”

Defra Resources and Waste Minister Jo Churchill commented: “Viridor’s new strategy is an excellent example of the ambitious plans we need to see from industry if we are to move to a more circular economy, where we significantly reduce our reliance on plastics and recycle more of our waste.

“Government action is leading the way to help businesses make this transition. Following the passage of our landmark Environment Act we are creating a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, introducing tougher controls on waste exports, and making manufacturers more responsible for their packaging. Together, these measures are taking meaningful strides towards our goal of preventing all avoidable plastic waste by 2042."