October 23, 2023

Attending the plastics reprocessing infrastructure conference

Plastics Reprocessing Infrastructure Conference 2023

Reflecting on the events of the conference, the mood of industry stakeholders could be described as resilient. The conference was primarily focused on the UK scenario, with discussions overlapping with the EU also. The general consensus across the industry was simple; we are not currently on track to meet the recycling targets set for 2025 and beyond, and we will not catch up without significant policy implementation.

The two key EU + UK recycling targets for 2025 are embedded in the Waste Framework Directive 2018/851, and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, which were introduced in 2018 as part of the Circular Economy Package (CEP). The Waste Framework Directive establishes a framework for handling waste, with a key feature being the familiar waste hierarchy pyramid highlighting prevention as the most preferred method at the top, followed by waste reduction, recycling, recovering, and finally disposal. Two key targets from this framework that involve plastic are as follows:

  • By 2020, the preparing for re-use and the recycling of waste materials (such as paper, metal, plastic and glass) from households shall be increased to a minimum of overall 50 % by weight
  • By 2025, the preparing for re-use and the recycling of municipal waste (which includes plastic) shall be increased to a minimum of 55 %, 60% and 65% by weight by 2025, 2030 and 2035 respectively

The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive amends the Directive 94/62/EC to update measures designed to prevent packaging waste, and promote the reuse, recycling and other forms of recovering of packaging waste, instead of its final disposal. The targets of this amendment for plastic packaging are to achieve 50 percent recycling rate by the end of 2025, and 55 percent by the end of 2030.

Unfortunately, the UK Government and the EU have fallen short at key policies designed to help steer towards meeting these targets, the most important of which is extended producer responsibility, referred to as EPR. Essentially, the EPR scheme is a mandatory measure which ensures that producers cover the costs for cleaning litter and collection of their products, gather data and monitoring quantities of their plastic packaging waste, and raise awareness on how to reduce, reuse and recycle their packaging products. The magnitude of financing by the companies involved depends on the number of products placed on the market, which is then calculated as a share of the total costs of public cleaning.

This policy aims to increase liability for producers of plastics to manage the entire lifecycle of their products, not just pre-consumer conditions, which in-turn would provide more funding for plastic waste and treatment, and encourage closed-loop recycling by providing clean material to the recycling stream. By failing to implement this policy, the waste industry continues to suffer, while the producers benefit.

The EU and UK Government have not abandoned EPR, and are still aiming to implement it as soon as possible. On top of this, there has been an introduction of a plastic packaging tax in the EU, more recently in the UK too. The plastic packaging tax was set up to tax manufacturers and importers that use plastic packaging with less than 30 % recycled content. The current tax rates for the EU and UK are €800 per tonne and £200 per tonne respectively. The instability of the recycled plastic market price introduces doubt, particularly in the UK, on the effectiveness of these taxes, as it may be cheaper to pay the tax than source recycled material.

In the UK, the method of collecting waste is also soon to change in what is termed the UK simple recycling reforms. The details of the reforms are expected soon, however the changes could see local councils ordered to arrange separate collections for six different types of recyclable waste. This change will increase source separation, standardise waste management across the UK, and therefore aid recycling for both consumers and re-processors, assuming consumers play their part at separating recyclables properly.

Even if EPR and the plastic packaging tax are both implemented, there still remains an elephant in the room in that the plastic waste industry is suffering from an ever-growing feedstock and high energy costs. For rapid change to occur, we must find more value for waste products to increase profitability, or significant investment must be made to help advance technologies to innovate the industry.


The Author...

Matthew McKendry, Researcher





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