Why we need to reimagine plastic recycling in the UK

Recycling may conjure up images of a clean, green, modern-thinking industry, but in many ways it is stuck in the past, especially when it comes to PET plastic

When thinking about recycling we tend to think of state of the art, new technology.  A process that is innovative, clean and most importantly green.

Having worked in sustainability with a focus on recycling for 10 years, this green image is not reflected in my encounters with the industry in the UK.  The culture I am confronted with is that of a scrap metal merchant; a ‘wheeler-dealer’ mentality that views innovation and technology with trepidation.  Not an industry which supports and welcomes research into new and inspiring technologies.

There are 7 types of plastics that are recycled in the UK and many companies who run plastic recycling plants in the UK simply do not understand the technology needed to recycle PET Plastic. Only through understanding this technology and being transparent in the process can this be achieved.

Unfortunately we are seeing a total lack of transparency in the plastics recycling industry in the UK. Along with high costs to innovate and a sheer laziness to invest, the industry needs to be totally reimagined.

In recent months we have seen reports of Britain’s plastics recycling industry being accused of leaking pollution into oceans and massively exaggerating waste figures. The industry is facing an investigation by the Environment Agency over widespread fraud.

Transparent, it is not.

If we focus on how Local Authorities recycle we can clearly see that they are failing the public. Swindon council announced earlier this year that it is planning to tell residents to stop recycling mixed plastic.  If other councils follow suit we will see decades of recycling simply go to waste.

It is true that councils have very poor recycling rates. There is clearly a lack of money for the technology that is needed to be truly sustainable and councils are not addressing the poor skill set in the industry.  They simply do not have the technical skill set in-house to deliver solutions to our recycling problems- so it must up to the industry to reimagine how the UK recycles.  The industry must evolve and develop better techniques that are also economically beneficial and competitive.

A key reason for our poor recycling rates in the UK is that the industry simply does not appreciate manufacturers’ sustainability mandates and what drives them.  Do recyclers truly understand the circular economy and the sustainability agenda of the corporate world?  To me it is clear that recyclers in the UK are failing to understand the corporate sustainability supply chain, meaning they are not producing recycled materials that are of high enough quality for corporations to buy and use.

Manufacturers are committed to reusing recycled material.  With public scrutiny of big business and their commitment to sustainability, major manufacturers are wholly open about optimising recycling.  This is not a manufacturer problem.

If Local Authorities and recyclers understood and appreciated the demands of manufactures and their sustainability mandates, then they could work with them to produce recycled plastic that can be used again – ridding ourselves of single-use plastic.

The recycling industry in the UK seems to have a ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’ mentality.  It’s easier to stick with the status quo rather than the bureaucracy of innovation.  However it is clear to me and to many others that our recycling industry in the UK is indeed broken.  And the British public have woken up to this.

Single use plastics are sometimes thrown upon the public without their consent and usually from sheer impracticality such as coffee cups.  But the public have woken up to this. Collins Dictionary naming “single-use” as the word of 2018 reflects the increasing global awareness in environmental issues.

Recycling PET helps ensure that a piece of plastic has more than a one-time use, albeit its second life might in the guise of a different product. Re-use is king. Let’s stop relying on oil when we have vast reserves of plastic desperately in need of being recycled.

PET is one of the most common materials we use in our daily lives.  It is it is the most prevalent of the 7 types of plastic.  By focusing on this material we can help ensure it is 100% recycled. PET handles our food and drink, our primary needs to survive. Raising awareness centred around our basic needs will ultimately contribute to change in consumer behaviour and perhaps in the near future, an era where the recycling process in the UK is transparent.  Where the process is innovative, green and clean.  With single-use plastics assigned to history.