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Plastic…A Dirty Word!

Oliver Hazell, Managing Director of GD Environmental talks about the required focus if Wales is to win its ‘War on Waste’. 

The Welsh Government should be applauded for its recent announcement detailing plans to reduce waste and further develop Wales’ capacity for recycling. After all, Wales uses around 725,000 plastic bottles a day and recent high-profile campaigns by Sky News and the BBC’s Blue Planet programme have made it clear the impact that plastic has on our environment.

We just cannot go on the way we are.

Plastic bottles and rubbish, floating in water.

A Guardian newspaper report on the 11 December last year talked of Wales ranking second in the world for recycling household waste.  Policies brought in by the Welsh Government as well as a target for zero waste by 2050 have driven the country up the global league table, to come in just below Germany.

According to a report from the environmental analysts Eunomia, with recycling rates of 63.8% for municipal solid waste, including household plastic and other packaging, Wales is set to become the world leader for recycling in 2018.

So, is the latest Welsh Government announcement for an extra £15 million of capital funding earmarked for improving councils’ recycling collection systems and infrastructure, including for plastics, the icing on the cake?

Does the fact the Welsh Government wants to make Wales the world’s first ‘refill nation’ and is set to work with the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs and other devolved administrations to consider a deposit return scheme for drinks containers, as well as amending existing rules so producers and retailers pay a larger share of waste management costs, evidence that the battle is surely being won? Not quite.

A great deal more needs to be done before victory is declared over waste, everyone’s common enemy.

There are a number of big issues that need to be addressed, namely, are the recycling targets REALLY being met and will the manufacturers of plastic change their ways?

The public is generally not aware that there is good AND bad plastic. In actual fact, most single-use bottles fall into the former category, are not straightforward to process and are economically unrecyclable.

A plastic bag that has been placed in a steel bin.

Since 2005, firms creating packaging waste are obliged to buy a “packaging recovery note”, or PRN, to offset the cost of dealing with it, with the charge acting as a small incentive to use greener packaging and the money raised helping to fund recycling.

These PRNs have failed to deter manufacturers. Plastic bottles are still being created in their millions with little regard for how they will eventually be disposed of.

The result has been that the cost of any PRN’s added into the recycling stream, eventually gets moved on to the customer, without driving any real change in the process. The emphasis therefore needs to be on manufacturers and they should be made to change their ways.

This seems to be something central government has recognised. Easily recyclable, safe packaging that we can keep out of nature’s way has to be a priority. The pressure is placed too much on the general public and the end of life processors, who are fighting a difficult battle.

According to the Independent newspaper, in an article on May 19th of this year; the UK government now wants to supercharge the system, with manufacturers who use unrecyclable plastic forced to purchase PRNs at extreme amounts.

Will this cost be passed on, or will it lead to change? Should legislation regulate what can come into the market through means other than financial?

The change is no doubt also being driven by the fact that China has banned imports of plastic waste, leading to a desperate need for new UK recycling capacity. Beijing had imported some 7.3 million tonnes of plastic waste a year from developed countries, including the UK. Its closure as a destination has seen waste piling up at British plants.

Plastic water bottles that have been bagged together for recycling.

As the Independent article goes on to say: “If you increase the cost of PRN, then you also have more money for recycling capacity, which can be used as a way of growth within the recycling industry in the UK.”

So, whilst Wales should rightfully be applauded for being proactive and leading by example, when it comes to tackling waste and increasing recycling figures, ultimately, it’s the manufacturers who really need to play the game – they need to create a product that is truly recyclable.

Additional money coming in, should also be used to focus on awareness, making it easier for the public to recycle, rather than being in fear of putting the wrong product in the wrong bin. The battle is only just beginning!