Plastic…A Dirty Word!

Oliver Hazell argues for a focus on manufacturing 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 clear the impact that plastic has on our environment. We just cannot go on the way we are.

A Guardian newspaper report on the 10 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 – an extra £15 million of capital funding earmarked for improving councils’ recycling collection systems and infrastructure, including for plastics – the icing on the cake? The Welsh Government wants to make Wales the world’s first ‘refill nation’; 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; and amend existing rules so producers and retailers pay a larger share of waste management costs. Is this 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 latter category, are not straightforward to process and are economically unrecyclable.

Since 2005, firms creating packaging waste have been obliged to buy a “packaging recovery note” (PRN) to offset the cost of dealing with it. The charge acts 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 amongst packaging manufacturers. The emphasis therefore needs to be on manufacturers, and they should be made to change their ways.

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 those companies processing materials when they reach the end of their life, who are fighting a difficult battle.

This seems to be something central government has recognised. According to the Independent newspaper, in an article on May 19th of this year,  the UK government now wants to supercharge the system, with manufactures who use unrecyclable plastic forced to purchase PRNs at extreme costs. Key questions include: will this cost be passed on, or will it lead to change? Should legislation regulate what can come into the market rather than relying on financial disincentives?

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.

As the Independent article states: “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!


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Oliver Hazell is Managing Director of GD Environmental

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