UK making inroads into plastics recycling but true circular economy ‘unattainable’ - BPF

Author: Jonathan Lopez


LONDON (ICIS)--UK plastics producers are committed to increasing recycling rates but “true circularity” in the economy is likely to be unattainable, according to the director general at the British Plastics Federation (BPF).

Philip Law added that once the UK leaves the EU in 2019, the country should “shadow” the 28-country bloc’s environmental policies, including the recycling targets presented by the European Commission in January.

The Commission said it wants all plastics used in the EU to be recyclable by 2030, with 55% of them being actually recycled.

However, BPF's director general said the EU's target of a circular economy where everything is reused would be an unreachable target.

“The ‘circular economy’ is a concept, just like ‘sustainability’. It all depends on what you mean by circular economy. With the degree of international trade and competitive advantage of some locations over others, there is bound to be some leakage from the system. The Holy Grail of achieving ‘true sustainability’ or ‘true circularity’ is probably unattainable,” said Law.

“The key thing is to embark on the journey towards it and persist. This, the plastics industry has been doing in spades. It uses only a limited fraction of oil and gas and it brings enormous benefits in use, for example through lightweighting and energy savings in vehicles and aircraft and in insulating buildings.”

Law added that current plastics are mostly based on carbon and hydrogen, given that access to oil and gas derivatives for production is still more convenient than biobased feedstocks.

However, using oil and gas-based feedstocks is a conundrum the industry will have to come to terms with. Moreover, despite Law’s assertion that “there is small and growing use of plant-based” feedstocks for production of plastics, he conceded their use is still residual.

“There are a number of possible reasons [for the small use of biobased feedstocks]. One is that not everywhere in the world can crops be grown on the scale required to produce bioplastics. Also there have been concerns about using edible crops for the manufacture of an industrial material when some areas of the world and some sections of society are short of food,” he said.

“It is difficult to make valid life-cycle comparisons between materials which are produced in quite different ways. Where for example do you draw the boundaries for example with plant-based materials - do you include the use of water through irrigation and the energy used in planting and harvesting?

“The range of properties available from plant-based plastics isn’t as wide as those from the range of conventional plastics. However use is growing and I would say these materials are an essential part of the industry’s wide offering.”

It was a director at European chemical major INEOS, a BPF member, who said in an interview with ICIS earlier this month that the many local authorities in the UK have a disparity of recycling systems, making the whole process dysfunctional.

The BPF executive said the UK’s infrastructure for recycling is of average quality in the wider EU context, but rejected claims that the many different local systems represent a problem for recycling.

He said the UK’s progress in recycling had been “tremendous”, adding that total plastics packaging recycling currently stands at 45%, while plastic bottles recycling stands at 74%.

“We are rapidly reaching the point where it can be said that there is no such thing as a ‘single use’ plastic product… Among EU countries, we are ranked as number seven in terms of plastics recycling. If you go beyond packaging there are also really impressive achievements in, for example, PVC [polyvinyl chloride] window recycling, where well over one million frames have been recycled in the UK,” said Law, pictured right.

“Pushing up the recycling found in household waste is a top priority for the industry. Activity in the UK rests on what is known as the PRN [packaging recovery note] system... which is in dire need of reform. It has favoured the export of waste for recycling overseas to the detriment of UK recycling for far too long.”

As the UK gets ready to leave the EU in 2019, potentially not being bound anymore by the bloc’s regulations on recycling and environmental protection, Law said BPF favoured to keep regulatory alignment with the other EU countries post-departure,  given the EU’s role as global “pace-setter” for recycling policies.

The executive added that BPF is “pressing the UK Government” for the country to shadow EU legislation post-Brexit, given the international nature of the plastics industry and how a divergence could place UK manufacturers at a disadvantage.

“We don’t want UK manufacturers to have to conform to more regulatory regimes than they need to, because it all adds to their costs and risks making them uncompetitive against overseas industries. We want a regulatory regime here which makes the UK attractive for new investment and encourages manufacturers with global options to actually stay here,” said Law.

The BPF director general said that the trade group had “informed”, rather lobbied, the UK government in 2016 to lower its recycling targets, as the country’s daily The Independent reported at the time.

He added that the proposed targets before the changes would have placed a burden on the industry, given that the recycling capacity required to meet those targets “simply” was not in place.

“I don’t use the word ‘lobby’, I much prefer to use ‘inform’… The consequence [from first proposed targets] would have been a lot more waste would have gone to landfill or sent abroad for recycling,” he said.

“It would have had counterproductive effects for UK recyclers. As it happened, the government listened and, whilst we did get a higher target, it was one towards which we could progress in a measured way. Don’t forget that plastics recycling is a business like any other it needs someone to invest in it.”

Picture source: Global Warming Images/REX/Shutterstock

Interview article by Jonathan Lopez and Pavle Popovic