Defra’s updated statistics on recycling suggest a worrying trend for tackling plastic pollution. In 2017, less than half of plastic packaging was recycled, continuing a pattern that has shown little robustness in being reversed.
By weight, plastic is only the third largest source of packaging waste. Paper and cardboard account for more than 2 fifths of waste, while glass nudges a little higher up the scale than plastics.
Of greater concern is that while nearly 80 percent of paper based waste and 68 per cent of glass waste is recycled, plastic hasn’t yet reached 50 percent. The majority of plastic packaging is not recovered or recycled from the waste stream, suggesting it finds its way into landfill or onto ships to head overseas.
Past performance lacks a clear trend
Past recycling trends are difficult to assess. The latest figures from Defra cover the year 2017. Reviewing past performance suggests there hasn’t been a consistent period-on-period improvement since 2010.
We think two factors are suppressing improvements in recycling levels. First, mainstream concern about plastic packaging began to gain traction after 2017. Second, China’s ban on plastic imports commenced in 2018. We would expect to have seen some of this data reflect plastic that was exported, potentially to have been recycled.
Our hypothesis is recycling levels in the UK will be suppressed for the time being by a lack of investment in capacity. This situation is improving, however, with several new plants proposed or in development.
The “plastic waste mountain” will grow by an additional 10.3 million tonnes over the coming decade
Our analysis suggests plastic packaging will continue to increase in volume. Although restrictions on certain plastics have been introduced and more will follow, we anticipate annual plastic waste will continue to rise. By 2027, our models suggest 3.2 million tonnes will be produced each year. The cumulative effect of this, coupled with modest growth in recycling and recovery, will more than 10.3 million tonnes to the growing plastic waste mountain.
Our assumptions in arriving at this are:
- That more eco-friendly substitutes will be used for non-recyclable plastics, keeping volumes high
- Concerns about the environmental impact of paper and cardboard based alternatives to plastics will suppress their demand
- Recycling and recovery is dependent on consumer behaviour, which will remain challenging to recycling efforts and suppress growth
Our view is a number of policy decisions can be taken to reduce the amount of plastic being sent to landfill, or change its potential harm.
Avoid knee-jerk plastic bans.
While removing plastic packaging can seem like a quick win, there are significant issues with this move. The performance of paper based alternatives is variable and not always suited to stacking, storage or transport. Furthermore, there are concerns alternatives may be more damaging once their production, recycling and lifecycle impacts are considered.
Invest in biodegradable plastics.
Biodegradable or plant based plastics have properties that allow them to break down faster if they do find their way to landfill, reducing their harmful effects. Care needs to be exercised to find the right plastics though. A recent study found some plastics claiming they degraded in the ground could be recovered and reused after three years of being buried.
Embrace deposit-return schemes.
These include a small cover charge for the packaging, which is returned to the consumer when it is returned for recycling. Schemes are already in place covering plastic bottles, but we think there is scope for these to be broadened to other forms of packaging such as foods and cleaning products.
Invest directly in recycling capacity.
Green bonds have become a popular way of raising finance for recycling projects. Investing in these bonds will help finance the next generation of plants and technologies.
Invest in clean-up schemes.
The plastic currently buried in landfill could remain there for many centuries. As well as tackling current plastic waste, we see scope for companies to demonstrate their social responsibility by investing in schemes to recover waste from existing landfill sites. Given the potential dangers involved, our view is professionally organised schemes are the best candidates for funding.
Conclusion: plastic waste will increase, but its impact doesn’t have to
Plastics currently account for around 20 per cent of packaging waste, but less than half is recycled.
By 2027 we anticipate annual plastic waste by weight to have increased from the current 2.3 million tonnes to 3.2 million tonnes, with 55 percent being recovered or recycled. This is based on a continuation of current behaviours.
Policies to tackle plastic waste should avoid immediate bans on the material. Instead, decision makers could look to reduce its impact through use of bioplastics and deposit-return schemes, and investing in recycling and clean-up activities.