The Push Pull Plastics Conundrum

Earlier this year Greenpeace made waves when they published a report declaring that plastic recycling was a waste of time. This was based on the claim that recycling rates weren’t making a dent in the global plastics pollution problem. A better solution they said was to eliminate plastic at source, and not allow it to enter the marketplace at all.

The report was not exactly well received by the waste management industry, and understandably so. Getting public participation in recycling efforts has been an uphill battle over the years. Recycling rates may have plateaued but that doesn’t mean recycling is being ineffective. To publish a report saying so and claim the only solution is to eliminate plastic entirely is, well, being just a little unrealistic. It also causes confusion from a public participation point of view.

But that’s not the only thing causing confusion when it comes to plastic waste and recycling.

In our last two articles we touched on industry feedback regarding the Simpler Recycling reforms proposed by government. Almost everyone agrees on the goal to increase the volume of plastic waste recycled, but if the complexities of collections and recycling are overlooked, it may not have the desired effect.

Currently the UK has a target of recycling 55% of plastic. Up until 2021, the UK only achieved a 44% recycling rate, and this hasn’t changed much in the past two years. The volume of plastic waste generated in 2021 was 2,5 million metric tonnes. Which means that only 1,1 million metric tonnes were recycled. The balance either went to energy recovery, landfill or was shipped overseas.

This is alarming and when you read these statistics you might be inclined to agree that a better approach is to eliminate plastic and prevent it from entering the market. It’s a noble idea, and given that almost every food item or product is either packaged in some form of plastic or made from plastic, it’s not a plan that can be implemented overnight, or even within a decade, if ever. Even if new legislation is passed, how will it be monitored or policed. Will producers accurately report on how they’re actively reducing plastic?

Some may argue that the plastics tax is the mechanism for this. Indeed, since it’s implementation in the UK in April 2022, it has raised 40% more revenue than expected. Taxing every product that contains less than 30% of recycled plastic is proving to be quite lucrative. So much so that government has warned they’ll be increasing this tax next year. The question is: Will it have the desired effect of reducing virgin plastic entering the market and increasing recycling rates?

More recently a report indicated that 5% less plastic entered the market in 2023. This would be considered good news if it didn’t parallel with collection and recycling rates that also reduced by 5%. What that implies is that there’s been absolutely no change in the volume of plastic waste being recycled. This means that the idea of the circular economy, where resources stay in circulation is not being understood or adopted. We’re producing less plastic and recycling less plastic. We should be recycling more to make an impact to the plastics pollution problem.

Banning exports to non-OECD countries simply stopped the UK and Europe from sending material to some very good facilities. Is the answer an outright ban? Or does improving plastic recycling need more education, more practical recycling reforms, more tax? Policy makers can go round in circles for months or years debating the best policies without making progress. It’s exactly that which is currently frustrating local authorities, collections and processing companies. This debate has been going on for years with little progress and it’s frustrating for an industry eager to make an impact but left to jump through hoops that keep changing shape and size.

It’s one thing to plan for growth in recycling capacity. But if those revenue streams get wiped out by changing regulations it makes for an uncertain future. It’s one of the reasons that Scotland’s DRS keeps getting delayed and why some people believe it’ll never be implemented.

The problem is that sitting in limbo, waiting for clarification on policies is not helpful. Policy is needed, but so is clarity on how it’s be implemented. There’s a wealth of expertise in the industry willing to contribute, but will their voices be heard? Or will we still be having this debate in 2 year’s time while the metric tonnes of plastic waste continue to pile up?