Design to recycle - plastic recovery targets

10 Sep 2013

How will the UK meet its ever-increasing recycled packaging targets? Steve Morgan, Technical Manager at Recoup, UK, discusses some solutions for how these could be met.

The EC Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive target for recycling plastics packaging is currently 22.5%, and is expected to be reviewed in the next few years. Broadly speaking, the EU recycled 33% of its plastics packaging in 2011, with 33% sent to energy recovery and the remaining 33% to landfill. Each country normally has fixed national targets for recycling, and it is the UK Government’s decision to raise plastics packaging business recycling targets from 32% to 57% by 2017, that is going to prove a challenge for the UK.

In practical terms, this means that 640,000 tonnes of plastics packaging was collected for recycling in 2011, and the 57% target could mean around 1.2 million tonnes need to be recycled in 2017 – almost double the current collection levels.

It is clear that significant and urgent changes will be necessary if the UK is serious about achieving these recycling targets. Sensible policy, strategic infrastructure development is needed to meet the targets, minimise compliance costs and ensure support is provided in the right areas. But how can this be achieved? Part of the problem is how complicated the plastics stream is, not least because there are so many different plastics in circulation, with varying properties. These can be categorised in three formats – pots, tubs, trays (PTT), bottles and plastic films.

The UK has a strong reprocessing infrastructure for recycling plastic bottles, but there is an urgent need for a similar infrastructure that can recycle PTT and films, or at least provide an alternative solution to landfill. Market development will be the key to recycling the ever-increasing amount of PTT being generated from local authorities recyclables collections. This means the development of large-scale commercially viable and sustainable end products that require a significant input of recycled plastics derived from PTT.

However, this forms only part of the solution. More research is needed on the potential to recycle mixed household films before wide-scale collections and commercial reprocessing is required.

Some solutions could come from changes in legislation. For example the Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) system needs to be refined. This can be done by focusing the support of PRN revenue where it is most needed for each plastic format, whether it is bottles, PTT, or films, so the necessary collection, sorting and reprocessing improvements can then be targeted and realised.

Looking towards the end of the recycling supply chain, UK reprocessing companies are bearing the brunt of material quality issues in the UK and they need to be better supported. Although there have been recent discussions involving possible tax breaks for recycled products, legislation has not been developed to give them the support they need.

One of the main areas of focus is the recyclability of plastics packaging. There is still not enough emphasis on the reasons why recyclability has to be an important consideration at the onset of pack design.

But the real goal is to ensure reprocessing can recycle the plastics supplied to them in a commercially viable way, without stifling innovation or restricting choice for the packaging industry. It is also imperative that wider environmental factors such as carbon and material saving are considered as part of sustainable packaging design. However, it should definitely not be recycling at all costs.

But, if none of the above action is taken, the UK will struggle to meet the new targets and will also be left with a legacy of poor quality material, which will affect the whole industry.


The Packaging Professional, 3 September 2013

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