The reality of plastic recycling

In an unforgettable year that’s seen a deadly pandemic capture the world, the climate crisis has also sparked a cascade of calamities – from wildfires in Australia to record-breaking temperatures in Antarctica.

As with every year, Earth Day, celebrated last month, couldn’t be more relevant.

In 2018, Earth Day was dedicated to plastic – in the hope to educate and build a world where the environmental consequences of plastic use are understood. But where does most of our plastic waste come from? And how much progress have we really made since then?

Plastic packaging in the UK accounts for nearly 70% of plastic waste

Non-profit organisation WRAP reported that 70% of plastic waste in the UK was driven by packaging. As a result of the pandemic, and the rise in e-commerce due to store closures, this figure is likely to increase in 2021. Not only are consumers using more plastic packaging, but due to coronavirus transmission fears, this largely consists of single use packaging rather than reusable – reversing the shift seen pre-pandemic.

The UK reports 50% of plastic packaging as recycled however in the United States plastic recycling rates are less than 10%. The understanding of which plastic types can be recycled is limited, as consumers are led to believe all types of plastic packaging sold in supermarkets are recyclable. This false narrative, coupled with limited local recycling facilities, has contributed to inadequate recycling rates in the Western world.

Like most developed nations, more waste is produced than can be processed at home. The UK produces 230m tonnes a year – about 1.1kg per person per day, but where does this go?

At one point, the US and most of the Western world were ignorant about their rates of recycling or waste management as 70% of their plastic waste was shipped to China. China’s ban in 2018 under its National Sword policy was a blow for the US. Despite this, plastic is still being exported to other Asian countries, specifically Malaysia – where volumes have increased so drastically that illegal operations are in place to burn these landfills, causing respiratory problems for those nearby.

A report published last week by Greenpeace confirmed large amounts of UK plastic waste being exported to Turkey, with about 40%, or 210,000 tonnes sent last year….is Turkey the dumping ground?

Challenges with plastic recycling

Recycling materials such as aluminium is straightforward, cost effective and environmentally sound, however with plastic it’s not that simple.

Plastic packaging often contains a Mobius loop (three twisted arrows) with a number between 1-7, indicating that the plastic product can be recycled (…technically), however, in practice many of these types cannot. This is a result of high costs and complex process challenges, with an outcome that will often result in a lower quality product with unclear environmental benefits.

David Bateman at Mintec suggests: “Using recycled plastics is frequently influenced by raw material prices and the prices of alternative packaging materials. These choices directly relate to market drivers affecting polymer prices and a range of cartonboard and corrugated packaging alternatives.”

“In April, US and Chinese polymer prices eased due to steadily increasing US PP and PE supply. Most resin plants have now restarted following their mid-February shut down due to winter storms across the Gulf Coast. Global paper prices continued to rise in April, driven mainly by a significant increase in corrugated prices across Europe and the US. The most significant surge in prices was seen for EU testliner and kraftliner grades. Strong demand and tight supply conditions continue to be the main drivers behind the firm prices.”

Wishcycling can lead to disruption in the recycling process

Depending on where you live, and the infrastructure of your recycling facilities, only specific plastic types are recyclable. Some consumers may be unaware of these differences; however, it is clear a large majority practice wishcyclinga term used to describe putting items in the recycling even if you are not sure they can be recycled.

For example, if you were to dispose of cling films (Type 3 – PVC) or disposable knives and forks (Type 6 – PS) in the same recycling bin as your water bottles (Type 1 – PET), this batch of recycling will likely be marked as contaminated and will delay the recycling process.

We all have a role to play

It is therefore important to educate yourself and your organisation to be mindful about which types of plastic are recyclable in your local council, as these powers are devolved and differ across the UK.

Individuals and companies, both large and small, need to participate in the fight against plastic pollution and supporting recycling initatives. Unilever have pledged to ensure 100% of plastic packaging is fully reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, with similar initatives seen by Coca Cola UK, and Nestle UK.

To ensure consumer safety concerns are met post-pandemic, brands will need to focus on balancing their sustainability goals with the heightened hygiene requirements, alongside increasing commodity costs, performance, and convenience requirements. At 4C Associates, our sustainability offering within Food & Beverage focus on addressing the triple bottom line pillars: People, Planet and Profit as foundations of success.

The UK government’s Plastic Packaging tax which is being introduced from April 2022 onwards looks to catalyse the movement towards a more sustainable and circular approach to plastic packaging, so companies need to ensure they are proactive in building the impact of this tax into their plans for achieving their sustainability goals.

Our team at 4C Associates combines extensive knowledge and experience with the latest process and technology innovations to provide our clients with transformative solutions and sustainable commercial outcomes. To find out more about how we can help you to transform your procurement, contact Mark Boswell, Director at 4C Associates at to arrange a complimentary consultation

To contact 4C Associates, book a meeting with us here.

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