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UK 2022 On Track For Record Breaking Year In Plastic Packaging Recycling | Recycling UK

Plastic Recycling UK

According to recent statistics from the National Packaging Waste Database, the UK recycled a record high amount of plastic packaging in Q2 of this year. According to Valpak, an environmental compliance firm, the UK is also on track to make 2022 a record high year; over 600,000 tonnes could be recycled this year if the country continues recycling at its current volumes.

Valpak pointed out the amount of plastic packaging being recycled in the UK has been trending upwards in the UK since 2016, but that 2021 saw a ‘significant jump’ to 593,000 tonnes. If the UK reaches 600,000 tonnes in 2022, then this would mean there has been a 33% increase from 2019.

Plastic Packaging Tax

Historically, the UK has exported more of its recyclables than it has processed in its domestic market, but this changed for the first time in 2021. According to Valpak, the surge of reprocessing within the country has been driven by factors such as new legislation, including Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation and the Plastic Packaging Tax. As well as this, a ‘wider focus on the potential issues around plastic waste exports and ongoing logistical challenges caused by the pandemic’ also played a key role.

Even though these factors ‘played their part’, as Valpak put it, ‘it was the loss of end markets such as China, combined with 2019’s increase in the UK packaging recycling target, that created the largest splash.’

Valpak went on to say ‘amid fear that the UK would not meet its obligation, plastics PRNs were in greater demand and, as a result, prices increased. The rise in prices led to higher levels of recycling at home and abroad, but also raised the spectre of potential fraud. Exporters have proved more likely to fall foul of enforcement agencies and, as a result, the market is opting for UK suppliers that will not let them down.’

Waste Collection

To continue driving domestic recycling rates, both producers and local authorities must work together; for example, this could be achieved by ensuring there is consistent waste collection together with modulated fees.

Commercial Operations Analyst at Reconomy Group Company Valpak, James Armitage, said, ‘These latest figures show that things are moving in the right direction. Higher volumes of material managed in the UK result in a more robust data trail and confidence that material is being processed responsibly. At the same time, PRN (Packaging Recovery Note) funding provides substantial investment in UK infrastructure.

‘However, there is still room for improvement across the industry. Valpak has always favoured UK reprocessing – in 2021, 70% of our plastics PRNs were sourced from UK businesses, compared with a UK figure of 53%. Since 2017, we have invested over £200 million into UK recycling infrastructure through our PRN purchasing, and over £120 million for plastic specifically. As the market adapts to greater demand for UK-sourced material, we look forward to seeing others follow our lead.’

UK Recycling

Plastics recycling charity RECOUP has warned us to not start the celebration yet, as this upward trend in UK recycling may be ‘forced by necessity’. Policy and Infrastructure Project Manager for RECOUP, Tom McBeth, has argued that while increasing volumes of plastic packaging being recycled in the UK might seem positive on the surface, it may be a sign that things are about to get worse.

There is still a large discrepancy in the amount of plastic waste being generated in the UK compared to how much the UK’s recycling infrastructure can process. While certain polymers, such as HDPE and PET, have well organised and high performing systems in place to ensure they are properly recycled, this is not the case for all materials. Waste streams such as post-consumer films and flexibles still rely heavily on either waste-to-energy (incineration) or export for their disposal.

Tom McBeth said, ‘In the last few years we have seen a decrease in material exported for recycling – this has been in part due to changes in foreign markets, particularly China and the wider Asian market, and Turkey. Similarly, legislative changes in Europe, as well as at home, have made it increasingly difficult to export material for recycling, and therefore greater proportions have been processed in the UK. This is a trend that has been forced by necessity.’

At Let’s Recycle It, we are of course glad to see the amount of the UK’s plastic waste being reprocessed here is increasing. We are especially glad to see that the UK’s reliance on non-OECD countries for waste disposal has decreased, and that the country is taking more responsibility for its own waste.

We do not dismiss the RECOUP’s warnings; we know that the UK does not currently have the capacity to recycle all the plastic waste it produces. Targeted investment is vital to ensure we are able to ethically handle the waste we are no longer able to export.

However, there is investment being made; we recently reported on a £165 million recycling park being constructed in the UK. To guarantee that this level of investment continues, we need voices from all sectors of the economy and the public to keep pressure on the government to keep the money going where it needs to go.

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