Troubled Times for the UK and European Recycling Sectors
There appears to be a distinct disconnect between the political rhetoric and what is actually happening in the waste and recycling sector. In the UK, Theresa May has pledged to eliminate plastic waste by 2042 and the European government has ‘declared war’ on plastic waste setting a target of having all packaging reusable or recyclable by 2030.
However, it has been reported [BBC News 1st March 2018] that waste recycling rates in the UK are falling for over 14 million households. Also, China’s import restrictions on waste materials has put tremendous pressure on the recycling sector and it is anticipated that UK firms are likely to close [MRW].
The global problem of Plastic Waste has been at the top of the media agenda since the BBC’s Blue Plant II showed how it is contaminating our world and endangering our wildlife. The noise from environmental activists and the general population has been deafening.
Politicians had to respond and announced targets for dealing with plastic waste. However, the announcements do not include details about how these tough targets are going to be met.
In the UK, we presently recycle 29% of our plastic, although this figure is presently under debate [Industry ‘exaggerates plastics recycling success’ – BBC News 6th March 2018]. The target for 2020 is 57% and 0% by 2042. The present recycling rate is low due to the complexity of the process and economics. Magnetic Separators, Eddy Current Separators and Metal Detectors remove metal and there is other technology to sort by colour and plastic type. However, producing a useful plastic from waste that can be introduced as a raw material into primary plastic production (such as happens with aluminium and steel) is presently exceptionally difficult. Contamination at the collection source, during transportation, and during process is one of many problems. Until those issue are addressed, plastic waste will continue to pose a problem.
The solution has been shipping mixed waste materials to China and other countries for manual separation. This is no longer an option, at least in China.
A cohesive plan of action is required, with the setting of realistic targets reflecting the technology and economics of waste recycling. At present, it appears that politicians are just making statements to appease the masses.