The Future of Recycling – A 2021 UK Outlook

Even before the New Year started the waste management industry was hit with a new curveball. The Environmental Agency announced a ban on export of plastics to non-OECD countries. It certainly threw a spanner in the works for plastic traders and exporters. Especially considering the ban included clean green-list plastics. The ban requires bi-lateral agreements to be in place between countries before plastic exports can be shipped. Considering that most of the negotiations on these agreements haven’t even started yet, it’s anyone’s guess as to when agreements can be reached so that exports can resume. In the meantime, the plastic exports pile up and the most likely scenario is that instead of being processed, they’re potentially going to end up in landfill.

This highlights one of the major challenges in the waste management industry. Well intentioned legislation is implemented without the impacts being fully thought through. When the industry is not given enough time to mitigate for the changes or simply doesn’t have the capacity or capability to meet the new requirements it ends up nullifying the purpose.  Case in point is the hazardous waste ban that was implemented in 2004, banning all hazardous waste from landfill. Well intentioned legislation, but at the time the UK wasn’t equipped to properly manage and process hazardous waste in a separate waste stream. Instead of benefitting the environment, derogations were issued which gave landfill sites exemptions.

Will deposit return schemes (DRS) have the same fate?

2021 is likely to see further progress in this regard. In recent years the UK has been steadily moving towards implementing deposit return schemes for recyclable items such as plastic and glass bottles as well as tins. Scotland has already passed the legislation and aims to have their scheme fully operational by 1 July 2022. In the interim there is a great deal of work to be done to ensure the scheme will be effective. It’s not as simple as charging a deposit and getting consumers to return recyclables in designated machines. Every role player in the production and life cycle of the product has a role to play to ensure that a circular economy can be created.  Packaging materials and processes all impact how effectively the product can be recycled once it has been returned.

Of benefit to the UK is that many countries already have very successful DRS’s in place. Best practices have already been established and the UK can draw from those experiences to avoid making costly mistakes that could impact the success of the scheme. Getting industry role players to work together and providing them with enough time to implement changes required is important. Changing production lines cannot be done overnight and has cost implication. All of these elements need to be factored into how the scheme will operate and how deposit fees will determined. For a DRS to be successful there has to be a benefit to manufacturers, recyclers, retailers, consumers and the environment. One cannot benefit at the cost of another.

Technology and AI in recycling

As a result of the pandemic 2020 saw the acceleration of digital transformation and a broader adoption of technologies such as artificial intelligence across all business sectors. It’s no surprise really because economic pressures made companies prioritise efficiency even more. And health concerns made many operators look at ways to automate more processes and reduce the reliance on a human workforce. AI and automation is ideally suited to waste management where many processes and materials are hazardous. Recycling processing is also inherently complex because while manufacturers are moving towards standardising materials, they’re not there yet. Because of this, the process of sorting, for example, is one of the biggest challenges to cost effective recycling. AI and other advanced technologies have the potential to significantly improve efficiencies.

One such facility is the Sherbourne Recovery Park that has been commissioned by the Coventry City Council. This state-of-the-art recycling and processing facility is being built from the ground up and is set to include AI throughout. It could well become the flagship for recycling of the future.

There are so many incredibly exciting developments in the waste management and recycling sectors in terms of innovation. The fact that internationally, the movement towards creating circular economies is gaining momentum, bodes well for the industry, because it will have a critical role to play. There will certainly still be many challenges ahead, but the sector can expect a fast-paced, innovative year ahead, filled with many opportunities.