The success or failure to recycle plastic packaging in the UK and Europe is defined by targets. The politicians set the targets and then monitor the relative recycling performance using data provided by the member states and local authorities. In this article, we look at the most recent targets and the accuracy of reported data.
UK Plastic Recycling Targets
In a House of Commons Briefing Paper on Plastic Waste (28 August 2019), it is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic are used in the UK every year, of which nearly 50% is packaging. The report also highlights how this demand is rising.
In the March 2017 Budget, the UK Government set the target for obligated businesses at 57% by 2020. This would make plastic packaging the 5th lowest recycled product out of Glass, Aluminium, Steel, Paper and Wood. This target also means that more than 2.15 million tonnes of plastic will not be recycled and it is unclear what will happen to this material.
The UK proposed future targets for plastic packaging of 50% by 2025 and 55% by 2030. These fall in line with the targets set by the European Union. Many environmentalists question the rise in the recycling rate of 5% over a five-year period, highlighting the fact that plastic use is predicted to rise and this may mean that the amount of plastic not being recycled actually increases in tonnage terms.
The UK’s ‘Plastic Waste’ briefing paper also refers to the “Plastics Pact” a collaboration of businesses, (including a number of supermarkets, retailers and manufacturers), which has set a target to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, for all plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable and for 70% to be recycled or composted by 2025. However, this target does not tie in with the UK and EU’s proposed target of 50% by 2025.
In early 2019, the UK government ran a consultation on a plastic packaging tax. The aim of the tax is to encourage greater use of recycled plastic and help to reduce plastic waste.
There is no indication that the implementation of the new tax will result in a more aggressive plastic recycling target.
European Plastic Recycling Rates
Out of the 29 European states, the UK lies 13th in the plastic packaging recycling table (2016 figures) with a rate higher than the EU average. This is behind Germany and Spain, but ahead of Italy, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Finland and France.
Exporting Plastic Waste
In 2018 the UK exported 0.6 million tonnes of plastic waste, down from a record high of 0.9 million tonnes in 2011. Since China’s ban on the import of certain types of waste, the most common export destinations in 2018 were Malaysia (17%), Turkey (13%), Indonesia (12%) and China/Hong Kong (9%).
However, the accuracy of this data was called into question in a recent BBC television documentary (War On Plastic with Hugh and Anna) where a plastic recycling bag from Rhondda Cynon Taff was found in a rogue plastic waste dump in Malaysia. A statement from the Rhondda Cynon Taff County Borough Council (Plastic Documentary Statement: Episode 2) stated that the dumping of plastic waste was done without their knowledge. Other councils recycling bags were also found at the same location highlighting the concern that many councils do not know the final location of waste generated in their region. This questions the official figures, which could render the targets meaningless.
National and local politicians continue to struggle with plastic waste. The public and political rhetoric quite clearly state that action is needed, although the type of action remains unclear.
Plastic is a valuable material, extending the life of food products and enabling the existence of computers, mobile phones and a million other everyday items. However, many environmental experts claim that the consequences of not taking aggressive action to better manage plastic waste are too frightening to consider.
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