Director of recycling at Indigo Environmental, Paul Rendle-Barnes, shares his views on the role local plastic recycling can – and should – play in helping the UK to reach a more circular economy.
Should we be championing local plastic recycling to reach a circular economy?
For many years, waste exports – especially illegal ones of the plastic variety – have been the subject of many national media headlines.
And in more recent times, as policies have been developed, public awareness has grown, and industry standards have increased, the conversation has turned towards how we, as a country, can remedy this.
The notion of a circular – less linear – economy is nothing new, it’s been at the front and centre of government policy and corporate initiatives for a number of years. Implementing measures that reduce and recycle plastic waste have been heavily regarded as a way to make this a reality.
But the truth is that our country still isn’t where it needs to be, to be able to make the most of its resources, notably plastic. It’s estimated that five million tonnes of plastic are used every year – of which almost half is packaging – so it comes as no surprise that more needs to be done.
Looking back at the early days of packaging regulations, there’s no denying that exports definitely helped to kickstart the commodity diversion from landfill – but was this actually more beneficial?
On the surface, it may have appeared so. But back then, in countries such as China, Malaysia, Russia, and other less developed countries, what was really happening was that this material was being imported and was facing the same fateful end-destination as what was trying to be avoided in the UK – landfill, or even worse, illegal dumping.
It was only last year that the BBC documented shocking images of unsorted plastic waste being dumped and burned on the roadside in Turkey. It’s still happening, and it needs to stop.
In the rush to ship the country’s plastic waste overseas, the unintended consequence of causing severe plastic pollution – and endangering the world’s oceans – was firmly brought to the general public’s attention, in David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series.
And this seems to have acted as a positive catalyst for spreading awareness, alongside encouraging reform and changing attitudes towards our waste.
A change in the plastic tide
Fortunately, many blue-chip companies have been examining the opportunities and implementing schemes which encourage greater sustainability in the design, reuse, and recycling of products. THG’s ‘recycle:me’ service, Boots’ recycling reward scheme, and Amazon’s ‘Second Chance’ are just three of the many initiatives we’re pleased to see starting in the UK.
And over 120 businesses are now part of The UK’s Plastics Pact.
Greater consumer awareness has arguably played a huge role in making this a reality though.
Organisations know that they will be held accountable by individuals who want firms to have authentic environmental credentials – gone are the days of corporate ‘greenwashing’.
And this boost in genuine care for our planet and its resources promises renewed growth in the circular economy.
However, a multi-faceted approach to the material’s lifecycle needs to be taken, starting with the design and manufacturing of the material – recyclability and segregation need to be considered from the outset.
More companies need to implement reverse logistics for the packaging they supply
More companies need to implement reverse logistics for the packaging they supply, not only to accept responsibility for the products they distribute, but to meet the increasing environmental demands of end users. And consequently, this will provide significant opportunities for plastic recyclers to access feedstock.
Additionally, the value needs to always remain in the product – while it’s in use, during reuse, and/or after recycling has taken place. This will go some way in helping to abolish the ‘throwaway’ mindset we’ve inadvertently defaulted to.
The ‘onshoring’ of our plastic waste is vital to move forward. The truth is all waste streams, where possible, should be recycled in the country of origin.
Not only is it more beneficial to the environment – incurring less transportation costs, and in turn, generating fewer carbon emissions – but, in the case of the UK, it also enables us to harness the resource potential of our own waste and reduce our reliance on export.
Redistributing it within the UK system helps to boost our own economy and environmental awareness too, while also closing the dependency loop, plus encouraging infrastructural advancement and increased capacity – instead of using export as a scapegoat for our country’s own underinvestment.
In fact, the British Plastics Federation’s ‘A Recycling Roadmap for 2030’, covers this and how the combination of a boost in recycling rates, minimal reliance on landfill and low-quality material exports, are key factors in driving positive change forward in the UK.
This ‘homegrown’ approach needs to be driven and coordinated by national standards and collaboration
As a result, the answer to ‘should we be championing local plastic recycling to help the country to reach a circular economy?’ is yes. But there’s a caveat.
This ‘homegrown’ approach needs to be driven and coordinated by national standards and collaboration across industry, to allow for true and unanimous quality reuse.
Of course further advancements such as deposit return schemes, uniform collections across different local authorities, and the 2022 Plastic Packaging Tax – which applies to plastic packaging which the UK produces or imports, that does not contain at least 30% recycled material – will be greatly welcomed.
But if these standards aren’t in place country-wide, and all stakeholders within the plastic value chain aren’t on the same environmental wavelength, then recycling is being done to simply pay lip service and isn’t circular at all. It’s just a diversion, or a delay, in the material becoming waste.
If this happens when we’ve put in the effort and investment into closing the loop, then we haven’t learnt anything at all – and that would be a real shame for both the nation and the future of our planet.