Spotlight on end use
of waste plastics
What happens to waste plastics in the recycling chain might not be of immediate interest to narrow web converters, but there is an obvious connection given a greater accent on packaging. In many European countries the issue has moved center stage. Diverting packaging waste from scarce landfill sites is a top priority. Incinerating waste for energy recovery is one answer, although it has some vocal critics. For example, Friends of the Earth says governments should instead aim for higher recycling rates, while calls to reduce all types of packaging waste have become stronger among pressure groups. A more favorable approach is to convert waste plastics into useful products, such as containers made from post consumer recycled (PCR) polyolefin resin. However, it is not always cost effective, which explains why so much recovered waste plastics is shipped to China and a few other Asian countries for reprocessing.
In the UK — as in other countries — reprocessing is not keeping pace with the huge volumes of waste being produced every year. This situation prompted the independent Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) organization to examine ways of expanding end-use markets for recovered plastics. In a new report, Realising the Value of Recovered Plastics, Wrap states that United Kingdom exports of recovered plastics have tripled over the past three years, with a corresponding 20 percent fall in the quantity reprocessed.
To place this in context, UK consumers and manufacturers account for around five million metric tonnes (5.5 million US tons) every year. This grows at about 1.5 percent annually in an industry worth some £18 billion ($36.7 billion). Around one third of consumption is for plastic packaging (typically LDPE, PET, HDPE and polypropylene), while construction products account for a further quarter.
The UK collects and recycles about 22 percent of plastics packaging consumed. Between 2001 and 2006 the exports of recovered plastics increased nine-fold to 450,000 metric tons (496,000 US tons) per year, with up to 90 percent shipped to China. Although this represents an increase in the recycling rate of only 3 percentage points since 2003, the growth in the waste stream during this period means that the volume of material recovered has increased by over 40 percent. To meet the current target of a 24 percent recycling rate by 2010 will require recovering the equivalent to 77,000 US tons of material every year.
Wrap says any improvement in the UK’s plastics recycling rates will depend on post-recovery prices, which directly relate to the price and demand for virgin polymers. Any fall will reduce the commercial incentives to invest in new reprocessing capacity. Also, lower prices for virgin materials would mean that recycled plastics would have to be cheaper, but retain high quality.
As ever, the entire recycling issue is made more complex by the conflicting interests of government and trade bodies. For example, the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (Incpen) recently questioned the validity of British government proposals to increase packaging recycling rates in 2008. Incpen said that raising targets was “not really exploring the whole issue”. It suggested that more work was needed to improve the quality of recycled materials and find end markets for them. It also questioned the data used to establish future targets, given that forecast declines in economic growth could have an impact on spending and therefore the amount of packaging used.