I think we’re lucky to be entering an age where, at long last, recycling is actually going to get some meaningful support as a concept from politicians. You could argue that it is overdue and not enough, but the fact that it is going in the right direction, is of genuine substance and that almost all countries are taking meaningful steps is something to be pleased about.
The recycling industry is still too fragmented and under-supported, but legislation like the Plastic Packaging Tax, due in April 2022, the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law due in 2023, and the, currently delayed, Deposit Return Scheme, are all great news for the country and the planet as a whole.
The Plastic Packaging Tax scheme obliges manufacturers to include a minimum of 30 per cent recycled content. Failure to do that means those manufacturers will be fined £200 per tonne and that cash will go to HMRC.
The best news for Britain though is that when EPR comes in, the several billion that will be raised will go directly to local authorities to invest in recycling, rather than to HMRC like the Plastic Packaging Tax. Hopefully, although I’m not holding my breath, some of this investment will be spent homogenising processes between different local authorities and creating economies of scale.
Broadly speaking, there are types of materials that are recycled very well and others that are barely touched up to now. There are some changes starting to happen though in that arena. For example, Tesco has started to collect film in store, things like carrier bags and other soft plastics, and has so far amassed over 1,000 tonnes, much of which will be made into their ‘Bags for Life’, although unfortunately this manufacturing process doesn’t happen in the UK.
The world is nowhere near where it needs to be in terms of recycling plastic. This has nothing to do with the recycling industry and everything to do with the twin problems of the way things are manufactured, shortly to be addressed by EPR or its equivalents, and the lack of education or incentive for users of the final products. Both are global problems.
Recycling plastic from household waste is particularly challenging as local authorities are in charge of this and they are obliged by central government to prioritise the short-term financial issues ahead of the longer-term sustainability issues. As there are 404 local authorities in the UK, there are 404 different ways of addressing this problem. In the UK, the revenue from the issue of consumer plastic is currently further exacerbated by products and packaging that are hard to recycle, as well as a lack of buy-in from much of the population.
More financial support from government for actual recyclers, particularly to small start-ups, would pay huge long-term dividends for the country as a whole. At the moment there is a massive shortage of capacity in the UK. As we have seen, countries like China, and now Turkey, are saying enough is enough, so it is in the national interest to process and repurpose UK waste within the UK.
Tax breaks for companies that manufacture from fully recycled materials, of any kind, would also be a wise move, however, without an increase in supply it’s a moot point.
As far as the UK and Europe are concerned, I think the skills and willingness to learn are there. I also think the innovation in new materials is there too. The stumbling blocks have been the inertia of governments when it comes to support, both financial to recyclers and local authorities, and moral in terms of things like deposit schemes for drinks containers, combined with the lack of real effort on the part of most manufacturers to create products and packaging that can be 100 per cent recycled.
Finally that is changing, but it has been a long time coming.