Who Is Blaming Whom?

Adrian Griffiths, Founder and CEO at Recycling Technologies says he is surprised by the lack of plastics recycling still taking place, and he questions whether our understanding of the term “recycling” is quite as accurate as we think…

As I’ve stated before, I’m surprise at finding out that less than 10% of the wonder material, plastic, is recycled each year. I lined up alongside many others to contemplate with alarm the possibility that plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050! I’m keen to discuss what can be done to make sure this dire prediction never happens, but first a comment or two on why it’s there.

Prior to getting personally involved in plastic recycling, as a naive consumer I felt morally righteous to see the magic recycling triangle on the bottom of my squeezy honey bottle, as I spread its contents on my toast, in blissful ignorance to what “widely recycled” actually means. I’ve learned two things about this that have made me feel very uncomfortable.

Recycling, to the ill-informed old me, meant that my bottle was going to become another bottle and then another bottle, round and round the recycling loop. Sadly this, it turns out, is rather unlikely since the vast majority of plastic that is recycled becomes a lower grade material. My squeezy honey bottle is then much more likely to end up as fabric and a milk bottle to become a timber replacement product, such as a railway sleeper or sheet material used in the building sector.

But this “cascade recycling” or “down cycling” as its often called, is not a bad thing, on the whole it is good. It allows the material to have another life, but, at the end of this new life this material seems to be un-recyclable and suitable only for fuelling an energy from waste plant. Well, until now that is, as the new approach of “chemical recycling” or “feedstock recycling” can give even this low-grade material a fresh start, as technology means we can turn such material into Plaxx®, a clean hydrocarbon used as the feedstock for the production of new polymers.

Ocean Bound?

The second thing I have learned about “widely recycled” is, in my mind, alarming. Living in the UK I imagined a factory in say Birmingham doing this recycling, turning what they could into recycled pellets and responsibly paying to send the rest to an energy from waste facility. The reality is that 67% of UK’s 2016 “recycled” achievement actually meant “put on a ship bound for the Far East” and the EU figures are not too dissimilar! Lay alongside this the list of the world’s worst ocean polluters, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand. The Ocean Conservancy report states that these countries account for 60% of plastic going into the ocean each year. Now I’m not saying that everything we send to the Far East ends up in the ocean, but how certain are we that an appreciable amount does not?

This “exported” is equivalent to “recycling” construct begs the question, why export this resource at all? Do they have technology in the Far East that allows them to separate, wash, granulate more efficiently or more effectively than we can do in the EU? If not then the reasons for sending it make me feel very uneasy as I munch on my honey laden toast. If not a technological advantage their ability to recycle our material more economically than us at home has to be they are prepared to use low cost labour to sort through this material by hand, avoiding the cost of the technology, or because there is no cost to the recycler for disposing of the material that they can’t recycle, or a combination of both.

Whichever way you look at it, “widely recycled” cannot categorically be dissociated with plastic in the ocean! It’s within our ability to do something about this. We could keep the economic value of this material at home, create the jobs to recycle it where it has been used and, in the process, gain certainty that our material is not exacerbating the plastic ocean situation.

This gets me back to my previous post in which I explained that given the technologies available today, over 90% of plastic could be economically recycled near the point of use, not incinerated but recycled! So rather than looking disapprovingly at the ocean polluting statistics from the five Far East countries perhaps we do well to remember the biblical expression “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”, let’s agree to work together to recycle our resources at home!

 

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  1. I think the ban on low quality recyclables by the Chinese Government will change the mindset in the UK. However this really requires the Government to support the development an scaling up of innovative products and processes that are able utilize the lower value plastic wastes and perhaps drive forward greater production of recycled granules and pellets that can be used readily in the supply chain.

  2. In an attempt to enlighten Adrian Griffiths concerns regarding plastics recycling we would advise the following:
    The magic recycling triangle – This is not a ‘recycling’ symbol but a material identification symbol, the triangle i.e. the ‘mobius’ loop in conjunction with a number printed/embossed in the centre of the triangles centre is used to identify the type of plastics material i.e. 1=PET, 2=HDPE, 3=PVC etc. When the EU Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was introduced in 1994, a time was set of 2 years for the Council to introduce a common marking system for all EU Member States. When the decision came in 1997, it was voluntary not mandatory, which has resulted in a proliferation of recycling/identification markings, leading to much confusion. A classic example is the ‘widely recycled’, ‘check local recycling’ and ‘Not currently recycled’ marking system which is being used in the UK at present. Currently there is no approved recycling symbol.
    Bottle to Bottle recycling – The technology to manufacture new milk bottles (HDPE) and soft drinks bottles (PET) using post consumer recycle (PCR) material taken from the domestic waste stream exists and is currently in use commercially, and will grow providing the collection systems currently operating via the Local Authorities continue to improve.
    Feedstock recycling/Chemical recycling – This process has been around for a long time, and would be a very good solution in dealing with contaminated plastics packaging, but under the current EU regime it is NOT classified as ‘recycling’ and therefore does not count towards either the UK or EU recycling targets.
    Export Recycling – Meeting UK/EU Recycling targets by exporting the majority of plastics material half way round the planet is unsustainable , a message that politicians in both the UK and the EU should note when looking at the future Recycling targets and the proposals for the Circular Economy.
    The New Plastics Economy Report – Launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. There is really nothing new in this plan, no new ideas, and despite over 40 industry leaders endorsing the plan there appears no mention of the type of support those 40 companies will contribute towards creating a commercially viable post consumer recycling plastics industry.

    Following are some observations on the reports details:

    Design for Recycle
    Design for Recycle is high on the agenda, but without the backing of the Brand owners and a radical change on how Local Authorities handle obligated packaging waste, nothing will change and there is nothing in this report that suggests there is any commitment from the 40 plus organisations that are supporting the report.
    Feedstock material
    The issue of collection and sorting is raised in Section 3 and it is recognised that harmonization is key to successful recycling, but there are no plans included as to how this can be achieved, how do we get the message across to Local Authorities that co-mingling of packaging waste materials wrecks any chance of successful recycling, especially when glass is included?
    Plastics in the Sea
    Who puts plastics in the sea, no suggestion on how the main culprit ‘people’ can be persuaded to stop dumping packaging waste on the beach and in the sea.
    Compostable Packaging
    Yes, but does the infrastructure to handle domestic packaging exist at a local level. Does the public understand what compostable packaging is and what to do with it?
    Disassembly
    No mention of costs involved or if there is any established companies with a track record of successfully operating this system and at what cost?
    Re- Use
    Retail market – Home care products – shampoos, detergents, fabric conditioners etc, the system of refilling at Supermarkets has been trotted out several times and has to date proved to be problematic, unreliable and messy. There is also the associated problems related to ‘legal issues’ such as who would be responsible if someone slipped on the ‘dribble’ from refillable liquids. These issue led to a lot of main retailers to decide it wasn’t worth the effort.
    Re-usable transit packaging is well established and highly successful and would also be an ideal ‘end user’ market for PCR, which is not happening at present.
    Carrier Bags
    For better or worse the 5p tax has reduced the amount of single trip carrier bags in the UK, but as the recent INCPEN report revealed has done little to reduce the overall ‘litter’ problem. The introduction of the ‘bag for life’ approach to replace single trip carrier bags revealed two things:

    • The authorities are prepared to ignore the health risks to the public which can result from re-using carrier bags with food stuffs.
    • The retailers lack of support to the UK Plastics recycling market by using imported ‘bags for life’ manufactured by companies outside the UK from packaging waste arising in the UK and then exported.

    Creating end user markets for PCR plastics materials
    There appears to be no evidence in the report that those Brand owners supporting it will move towards a policy of adopting PCR in all new packaging, walk into any Superstore and look at how much of the packaging being used contains any PCR plastics , the answer is , very little!

    What this report fails to address is the main issue relating to plastics recycling and that is the creating of the ‘end user’ market, there is little point in creating every bigger recycling targets unless there is a ‘end user’ market for the resulting PCR plastics material, you simply end up where we are today – meeting the targets by exporting the packaging waste for someone else to recycle.

    Tony Hancock/Henry Emblem
    The Independent Packaging and Environment Safety Forum

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