Recycling Is Only Part Of The Story

Alison Kemp, associate director at Wardell Armstrong, says that the UK is falling short when it comes to generating a strong market for products made from recycled materials. She says recycling is only part of the story.

Recent focus on delivering the UK waste management targets has been largely centred on maximising our recycling rates. As defined by the circular economy concept, the collection of material for recycling is only part of the story and, to close the loop and make this effort truly sustainable, as well as economically viable, there needs to be a strong market for the products made from these recycled materials.

Currently, this is where I think the UK is falling short. We have limited reprocessing capacity in-house and so much of the collected recyclate is exported to international markets in Europe and Asia. Investing in innovative technologies, and building up a market closer to home, will help to retain the value of these resources locally.

We have limited reprocessing capacity in-house and so much of the collected recyclate is exported to international markets in Europe and Asia.

This will also create jobs whilst enhancing the UK’s resilience to the fluctuating commodity markets, building in more flexibility and long term sustainability.

There are a number of companies that have been working hard at recyclate reprocessing for a long time. At the CIWM Resources Conference Cymru 2017, I heard from Polymer Extrusions Ltd, a manufacturer of plastic extrusion tubing in South Wales who is remoulding new piping from manufacturers’ plastic production waste streams. Viridor is also investing in reprocessing technology for the glass and plastic recyclate that they collect, preparing it to meet the specification for a range of products and reducing the exposure to volatile export markets.

However, these businesses in the UK are currently more the exception rather than the rule and, if recycling is going to continue to form a key part of our waste strategy as we move towards a circular economy, developing and purchasing products made from recycled materials will need to become the norm.

Barriers

Research by WRAP found that the reasons currently hindering development of recyclate reprocessing include perception of product reliability and performance, variability in availability, consistency and quality, lack of transparency, and the cost of investment.

Engagement with key players across supply chains indicated enthusiasm for encouraging customers to recycle the products produced, but much less support for actually utilising recyclate content within the product manufacturing. I see this as a huge missed opportunity.

These barriers will need to be overcome, as there is the potential for significant benefit to both individual companies, and the UK as a whole, environmentally, socially and economically, through developing this industry now.

These barriers will need to be overcome, as there is the potential for significant benefit to both individual companies, and the UK as a whole, environmentally, socially and economically, through developing this industry now.

There are a number of high profile international companies and organisations that are helping to drive this change. The Tokyo Olympic Games and Paralympic Games will be using metals recycled from mobile phones and other small electrical appliances to forge the 5,000 medals that will be awarded to the athletes in 2020.

About 8 tonnes of metal will be collected across Japan from old devices. This fantastic idea of engaging the nation, promotes sustainability, is intended to reduce costs, and is being presented on a world stage.

The key will be maintaining this drive following the 2020 Games so that these materials continue to be extracted from the waste stream and processed in to products that people really want to own.

Furniture

Another internationally big player, IKEA, has recently launched a range of kitchen fronts made from recycled wood and PET plastic, eliminating the need for virgin oil-based plastic. A plastic foil made from discarded PET bottles, meeting the same quality standards as foil made from virgin material, will cover the surface of the kitchen fronts, allowing IKEA to continue to offer their 25 year guarantee on the units.

IKEA is the world’s biggest furniture retailer, with 387 stores in 48 countries, selling 9,500 different products. A relatively small initial step such as this can have a large positive impact on the sustainability of their business, but can also have a significant influence on that of its competitors, as well as their extensive customer base.

Together these examples will help to address the issues of public perception, and therefore, in turn, the aptitude to invest, which will go a long way to optimising the value within these materials and closing the loop. This can lead on to developing the infrastructure, quality standards and supply chain collaboration likely to be required to drive this sector. Now that the ball is rolling,

I hope to see that it will be self-perpetuating, and other companies and event organisers will follow suit in order to maintain their market position.


 

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  1. MS Kemp makes a very good case for use of recycled product’s, but has not pointed out that the reason why so much packaging plastic waste is exported rather than reprocessed in the UK is that the current PERN system unfairly penalises UK reprocessors over exporters.
    Until this is corrected there will be little incentive to reprocess in the UK.

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