The challenges and opportunities in household plastic waste recycling
Victoria Murray CEnv supports predominantly local authorities and their service providers in reviewing and procuring environmental services including waste and household recycling collections and processing. Victoria delivered a talk on the topic of household recycling which has created the article below.
We know that plastics is a global concern, and we’re lacking processing capacity within the UK. There’s a lot of our plastic waste that’s generated that isn’t recycled or that is sent abroad for processing.
At the moment at some local councils you can recycle, a full range of plastics including pots, tubs and trays, plastic bottles and film. Then in other local authorities, including the one in which I live, I can only recycle plastic bottles at the curbside and if you want to recycle anything else, you’ll have to find a different outlet to take that to.
In terms of local authority recycling, the government set a 65% recycling target. And at the moment, looking at that and how that applies to plastics, 82% of local authorities in England collect plastic pots, tubs and trays at the curbside. I think all of them collect plastic bottles, but only 10% correct plastic film. But from 2027 it will be a requirement for local authorities to collect film in the recycling.
Disposing of film
Films are a particularly difficult material because it can often be contaminated with food waste when coming from household recycling bins. And then you get an issue where that causes problems for other materials within the stream. For example, if you’ve got a commingled collection where you’re collecting paper and cardboard at the same time as other materials such as plastic.
Opportunities for household recycling schemes
Deposit Return Scheme
There’s a deposit return scheme which has been in the press quite a lot. The deposit return scheme will essentially be for single use drinks containers. People will pay a small deposit when they purchase the items and it will be per item, including individual bottles within multi packs and it’s likely to be around 20 pence and then you get that 20 pence back when you return the bottle to a reverse vending machine. Typically at the point of which you purchased it, similar to systems that operate elsewhere in Europe.
Extended Producer Responsibility scheme
We’ve also got the extended producer responsibility scheme which is coming in from the next financial year, from 23/24 financial year. This should cover the full net-cost of recovery or packaging waste so the way they’re currently working out is to do lots of different modelling to work out what those costs are. Then essentially local authorities will receive some sort of credit per tonne, which should cover that cost of recycling and or disposal.
Producers might shift the types of packaging that they produce. This is because the more recyclable and more easily recyclable the product that you’re producing is, the less the producer will pay in terms of modulated fees to place that item on the market.
There might be an increase in things like take back schemes and reusable packaging to producers to reduce their costs. Essentially all these costs and that they will incur in terms of the modulated fees will be passed directly to consumers.
Plastic Free Initiatives
Local authorities have declared the climate emergency, but fewer have produced a sort of road map or a clear plan in terms of how they’re going to get from where they are now to a net zero position. Part of this is reducing the plastics that they use within their offices and council buildings or within their support services. Things like taking away single use cups, drink stirrers, straws and so on.
From October 2023 the UK government is banning single-use plastic plates. This will apply to businesses including takeaways and food vendors and the hospitality industry. So it’s going to be quite interesting to see how that feeds through and how well we adjust to that quite significant change.
Then we’ve got plastic free campaigns that local authorities have run a sort of behaviour change campaign to reduce this waste stream.
A plastic Free behaviour change case study
ANSA is operated by Cheshire East to deliver their waste services. They launched a behaviour change campaign in 2018 which was branded Life with Less Plastic. It involved lots of practical advice and using social media. They produced a community toolkit which people could download that gave practical advice on how to reduce the use of plastics.
They also trained some waste reduction volunteers that could give individuals and businesses advice on how they can reduce plastic waste where possible. Then they looked at eliminating it from council buildings and then also using shock statistics as part of their behaviour change campaign to get people to understand what the real scale of the problem was. Wilmslow, a town within the Cheshire East area was then awarded a plastic free community status by Surfers Against Sewage in 2019.
The impacts of extended producer responsibility will create a shift in terms of how producers package their materials and what products they use to make that packaging. For example if a product that you normally buy comes in a composite product such as a tube that holds crisps, the price of that might go up because it’s more challenging to recycle. That might then change people’s behaviour from a cost perspective.
Then we’ve also got some behaviour change around adapting to Deposit Return Schemes because that’s a different way of dealing with that material from your household. You will have to take it back to the point of purchase.
Challenge of food contamination
There’s been a recent study around how we use recycled plastics and the safety of using those for food use. There’s been concerns about polyethylene and this is because of the chemicals leaching out of the plastic effectively into the food products. These materials and chemicals have been associated with things such as hormone changes and types of cancer, and the impacts are not yet known. So another sort of barrier to recycling is really understanding, are the recycled material materials safe for food use?
At the moment it’s actually cheaper to produce new plastics than it is to recycle existing plastic. Currently the price of virgin plastic is quite low, and it’s often linked to the oil price, which again makes it more challenging on the recycling side because if you haven’t got other incentives, then that makes it more difficult. But the tax around recycling content for new plastic packaging, should help that to some extent because it should drive the market for recycled rather than virgin materials. But currently virgin plastics are still cheaper.
Rolling out film collections, because of the nature of the material, might be quite challenging for some local authorities. Also getting that messaging right to residents on what you can and what you can’t do, what counts as film or what isn’t film. Things like plastic film that’s used to wrap food in could potentially be contaminated and that causes problems.
Things like crisp packets cause a lot of confusion because people aren’t sure if they’re plastic or if they’re foil. Older MRFs can’t segregate film. Then some companies are creating new types of packaging which could potentially result in more waste rather than less. They tried to move away from glass and plastic and instead using things like cardboard, which is plastic lined. But then the question is, you’ve created another product that’s like a tetra pack.
How do you recycle that, then there is the further challenge of compostable plastics because they’re only compostable in an industrial process and we don’t want them in the recycling plastics collection scheme, so there’s some obstacles to overcome.
This article was created from a talk delivered by Chartered Environmentalist Victoria Murray, CEnv who is an Associate Director at Tetra Tech, a multidisciplinary consultancy. Victoria’s worked in the waste and resource management sector for 16 years across a range of businesses including an MRF operator, waste collection service providers and for local government. Victoria’s current role is in supporting local authorities and the service providers to review and procure frontline environmental services.
Watch Victoria’s plastics recycling talk here:
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