The Changing Face of Plastics Recycling

The Big Story Headline Article in British Plastics & Rubber (Nov/Dec 18 Issue)

The BBC’s Blue Planet II appeared on our television screen in September 2017.  The amazing documentary series highlighted the challenges faced by marine life and generated a global anti-plastic tidal wave that shows no sign of diminishing.  However, has our plastics recycling strategy actually changed?

Since September 2017, there has been a swathe of political rhetoric culminating in the UK’s Autumn 2018 budget announcements.  Chancellor Philip Hammond outlined several new measures to tackle plastic waste.  This included introducing a new tax from 1 April 2022 on produced or imported plastic packaging that does not include at least a 30 per cent recycled content.

Plastics Waste

Baled plastics waste being delivered for processing

The European parliament is also taking action against plastic waste.  Under the parliament-backed directive, items such as plastic straws, cotton swabs, disposable plastic plates and cutlery would be banned by 2021.  Additionally, 90% of all plastic bottles would be recycled by 2025.  Plastics recycling is on the agenda.

Different Voices, Same Problems

However, the fundamental difficulties in collecting, separating and re-using plastic remain.  In the UK, each council adopts their own recycling strategy.  Households in different regions are told to separate and collect different materials.  Swindon council has taken one step further and is considering burning plastic along with other rubbish rather than sending the material abroad for recycling.  Other councils, such as Basingstoke, has instructed residents to only recycle certain types of plastic.  Despite the Chancellor committing £20 million to tackle plastics and boost recycling, there is no unified country-wide plastics recycling strategy.

Implementing a Workable Plastics Recycling Plan

The successful recycling of any material requires good planning and execution.  Ironically, this must start at the end of the process.  Firstly waste plastic must be clearly categorised into material than is recyclable and unrecyclable, possibly using the global definition proposed by Plastics Recycling Europe and The Association of Plastic Recyclers.  This ensures that recovered plastic waste can be re-used.  Recovering, transporting and then discarding materials than are unrecyclable is costly in terms of effort, money and energy.

Ongoing research and changes in product design, will identify new techniques to broaden the scope of recyclable plastic waste.  The criteria for plastic waste collection will change accordingly.

Secondly. strategically located plastic waste recycling plants are needed to keep transportation to a minimum.  Each plant will receive the same mix of plastic waste, enabling continued development and improvement of the recycling process.  This stops each plant having to develop unique processes to suit the plastic waste collected in one region.  By having a clear country-wide recycling collection specification, contamination levels of the plastic waste will reduce.  Separation technology, such as magnetic separators and metal detectors, will still be required, but the purity levels of the end-product will increase.

Metal contamination removed from granulated plastic waste
Metal contamination removed from granulated plastic waste
 

Politicians have only introduced these new policies due to the unprecedented reaction from the general public.  However, setting a target without any definitive plan of how to achieve that result may be considered foolish.  Equally, introducing new taxes, that may ultimately be paid by the consumer, is not addressing the key issues that prevent plastic waste from being recycled.  It is time for the politicians to sit down with the industry and agree a proper plan.

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Photographs taken by Paul Fears Photography

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