Within difficulty lies opportunity: How Brexit could drive the UK circular economy

Roger Morton, Director of Axion Polymers, explains what opportunities for the UK waste and resources sector could arise out of the UK’s departure from the EU.

With Brexit looming large on the horizon, I believe that the UK’s departure from the EU offers fresh opportunities for our nation and its manufacturers to secure their raw material supplies, such as recycled plastics, from a stable domestic market and stimulate a circular flow of materials.

With uncertainty persisting around the whole Brexit process, there could be potential difficulties in transporting material across borders after 29 March 2019. However, from a more optimistic viewpoint, such logistics should become a driver for growth in the domestic market as purchasers seek to reduce inward material supply chain risk.

Within difficulty lies opportunity: How Brexit could drive the UK circular economy
Roger Morton, Director of Axion Polymers.

Freedom from regulatory controls and external policies, coupled with the ability to set our own rules, could encourage greater investment and enable the UK to ‘get ahead of the rest of Europe’ in material recovery and resource security, provided there is strong government leadership.

Recyclers, like ourselves, who process waste materials derived from within this country are arguably in a stronger ‘self-reliant’ position than those who rely on external supply chains or import goods from abroad. We extract plastics from end-of-life cars and other metal scrap to produce polymers that are reused in a variety of other goods, including automotive parts.

With 31.5 million cars currently on UK roads, our future end-of-life vehicle feedstock for our recycled polymers is assured. And that can only be good news for UK companies seeking to use locally-sourced plastic raw materials that can go back into a range of products, from new cars and electrical equipment to construction products.

Brexit is inevitable now. Although complications could arise, we are taking a positive approach. British companies should focus on the opportunity that leaving the EU offers and how we can make the most of our resource sustainable position.

A good example here is steel. With annual consumption (12 million tonnes) versus annual arisings (11.5 million tonnes), this market could be much more ‘circular’ than the existing export of scrap/import of finished products model. Similarly, demand creation for the use of recycled polymers in new automotive, electrical and building products could encourage further investment in more processing plants to produce plastics for new UK-produced goods.

While material quality controls, such as REACH regulations and other standards, should remain ‘mirrored with Europe’, I suggest there could be an opportunity to take the lead by designing and implementing a set of regulatory measures that drive the transition to a circular economy here.

Such measures could involve heavily-modulated producer responsibility obligations for brands that make the most effort to change to fully recyclable designs and/or utilise high levels of recycled content. This would require vision and a brave government with strong leadership, but in an uncertain world, what’s certain is that material would be available in the UK for use in the UK.

One of the long-term benefits of Brexit should be that we can stop mass exports of waste plastic packaging and WEEE, and start investing in recycling infrastructure in the UK as an ‘environmental goal’. While 63 per cent of collected UK plastic packaging resources is currently exported, the country is short of around 10 to 15 large-scale recycling plants to handle that volume.

Additionally, we don’t have enough energy-from-waste capacity to handle the low-grade reject plastic stream produced by those plants – around 50 per cent of their waste infeed tonnage. So strategic government thinking and stable long-term policy measures and clear goals for the five to ten years will be needed to drive this change.

There is an opportunity for the UK Government to drive the development of recycling demonstration and pilot ‘pathfinder’ plants once we are free of ’state aid’ regulations that prevent preferential treatment by governments.

UK businesses need to wake up to these future possibilities and start talking to UK-based suppliers that can offer secure supplies of high-quality and resource-efficient recycled materials.

From our own perspective, we have seen an increase in enquiries and interest from UK manufacturers in recent months. And perhaps other recyclers have experienced this too.

Despite current uncertainty around Brexit, we remain upbeat about the opportunities to trigger more material moving within the circular economy in the UK.