Don’t get down in the dumps about recycling plastics

Preventing waste makes good business sense. For commercial organisations revenue is generated not just by the money saved from sending waste to landfill and the associated charges involved, but from the waste itself. Using materials more efficiently, and managing waste better enables manufacturers to reduce costs, make money and decrease the environmental impact.

Defra’s UK statistics on waste from 2010-2015, last updated in February 2017, indicate that of the 209.0 million tonnes of all waste that entered final treatment in the UK in 2014, 44.5% was recovered (including recycling and energy recovery). The proportion that went to landfill was 23.1 per cent. However, landfill remains the second most common method of managing waste, after recycling.
Landfill dumping
Plastic materials have come under particular scrutiny recently. In his recent Budget speech, the Chancellor spoke of plans to investigate how charges on single use plastics, such as polystyrene takeaway boxes, can reduce waste and protect the environment.

Of course we need to recognise the importance of recycling plastic and increase levels of recycling. When choosing products that are packaged in plastic materials, organisations should always choose products that are clearly labelled as recyclable and opt for plastics that are created from recycled material. A clear distinction between what is and isn’t ‘single use’ plastic will also help people make informed decisions. The real issue is not with plastics themselves, but with recycling rates, end-user behaviour, and product design.

As we’ve regularly clarified, contrary to popular belief, plastics have a very resource-efficient profile and when used for lightweight packaging, actually save resources and waste through the supply chain. Crucially, responsibly produced plastics can be recycled effectively and efficiently, or used to generate energy from waste (EFW) at the end of their useful life. Responsibly produced plastic packaging also brings value and efficiencies to the supply chain – weighing less than alternatives like paper, cardboard, glass and metal, it also extends shelf life, minimising food waste for example. Plastics are used for a wide variety of functions, including being used to aid the recycling process, polythene bags and boxes for example, facilitate the collection of dry recyclables whilst the use of plastic liners (traditional or compostable) in food caddies and bins are proven to increase recycling tonnages through improved participation rates.

Where recycling of plastic packaging does not pass the Technically, Environmentally, and Economically Practicable (TEEP) test, the EFW process can recover the small amount of oil used to create the packaging at the end of its useful life, diverting it from landfill and helping power our towns and cities.
The real recycling challenges to mechanical recycling come with complicated multi-material packaging, treatments and additives that cannot easily be recycled, if at all, and end up in landfill, or even worse as litter in the wider environment. Once again, the answer here is to look at resource efficiency, consider the benefits that lightweight packaging brings, and recover the calorific value through EFW*.

Our message for you as we approach the end of 2017, is not to get down in the dumps about plastic, but use it responsibly to ensure that recycling is all wrapped up!

*Plastic packaging has a higher calorific value than coal.