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Commentary: The role of plastics recycling in the circular economy

steve kinley of indigo environmental

What role does the recycling of used plastic material play in helping the UK to achieve a circular economy? Steve Kinley - commercial director of plastic recycling specialist Indigo Environmental - shares his thoughts.

The current landscape
In the UK and around the world, waste plastics have been one of the media's most reported topics over the last 12 months - with a big focus having emerged on their production, supply chain management and environmental impact.

Over the last couple of years, the spotlight has truly been shone upon plastic as a global issue, with documentaries such as David Attenborough's Blue Planet highlighting the effect plastic pollution is having on our oceans and marine ecosystem. It is programs such as these which have heightened public awareness about the challenges facing both the world's waste and recycling sector and the earth as a whole.

However, while in the blink of an eye we see mountains of plastic waste clogging up the globe's oceans and piling up in landfill sites. We also see plastic as a ‘saviour of the people' - being used to make the personal protective equipment that is keeping the world's frontline workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example.

This mixed messaging is rather contradictory, so where does this leave the material in question, on the spectrum of ‘good versus bad'? 

A worldwide issue
While plastic was arguably the innovation of the twentieth century, it is now the global challenge of the twenty-first.

Now more than at any time in our past, in the UK, we are aware of our need to recycle waste effectively, to protect our planet - as well as significantly reduce the damage we have already inflicted on it so far through waste plastic pollution.

This is where effective recycling comes into the equation.

For many years, developed economies have been shipping their waste to underdeveloped countries for significant financial gains. While this exportation of waste has previously been labelled as ‘recycling', it is not. This method is merely ‘moving the problem' to another destination and it needs to stop if a circular economy is ever going to be a reachable reality for the UK and similar economies.

When we look at the Waste Hierarchy, for example, prevention and reuse must be prioritised, but where this is not possible, recycling is the next preferred route. Yet, while awareness is the first step in making plastics a globally considered issue, taking a real, multi-pronged approach is when we can truly start on the road to a closed-loop recovery.

Sector innovation plays a crucial part
In simple terms, the definition of a circular economy is one which aims to eliminate waste and promotes the continual use of resources.

Therefore, to make plastics more circular by nature, they first need to be designed with recyclability and disassembly in mind, at the very start of their lifecycle. It is this, as well as the phasing out of polymers and additives that are not able to be recovered, not easily recyclable, that will in turn make plastics more sustainable.

Plastics should be created with a cradle-to grave philosophy, which ensures the value remains in the product while in use, during reuse and/or after recycling has taken place.

Unfortunately, in today's current climate, the UK's infrastructure is held back by a poor, decentralised, post-use segregation and separation system. This means that the economic value of a great degree of our plastic does not exist.

It is this ‘throwaway' mentality which leads to the exportation of this commodity. But, by shipping plastics overseas, we are losing two thirds of the resource opportunity it would otherwise generate in the UK. This does not make sense.

However, it's worth highlighting that there is regular innovation taking place within the industry, as more companies want to help our country embrace plastics.

For instance, packaging markers which can be applied to different products - similar to barcodes - are currently undergoing testing. These can be read at recycling centres and allow the data to be reported back to the manufacturer - allowing them to track and prove what percentage of their products have been recycled. And it is technology such as this which will allow the country's circular recycling efforts to become more traceable and quantifiable, affording more visible and tangible results.

Policy on a wider scale
There's also no doubting that intervention from the Government needs to happen to help make a circular economy possible. Government needs to ensure we stick to recovery targets, integrate recycling into laws, offer tax breaks for companies taking action, and provide financial support for the development and adoption of innovative technologies in this field.

In addition, implementing wider societal measures such as deposit returns schemes for single-use items and driving more organisations to bear end-to-end recovery costs, are vital in generating greater respect for the resource potential of this commodity. It is only when this awareness and cooperation is there that a circular, and less linear, attitude can start to emerge.

When it comes to what role plastic plays in achieving a circular economy, the answer is an important one.

By viewing plastic as an ‘opportunity' as opposed to a ‘nuisance', we are able to facilitate the movement towards a more cyclical model. Eradicating the exportation of our waste is a key step in achieving this.

When we are processing and recycling these waste streams in the UK, we are preserving the value of that commodity within the nation's economy, instead of sending it overseas for others to extract and benefit.

But, given the demand for this material is increasing, there also has to be collaboration from all areas within the value chain to make any chance of a closed loop system feasible. Otherwise, if plastic recycling continues to be carried out in disjointed silos, we will never be able to standardise waste collection, reduce the amount sent to landfill, or improve overall sustainability of plastic.

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