As 2021 draws to a close, I can without doubt say that this has been the most challenging year since I started working in the industry way back in 2004.
An industry that has had to pivot and adapt to ever changing economic conditions, legislation, and political influences, but one that continues to fight and evolve.
The UK recycling industry has many forward-thinking companies and individuals who drive it forward to be one of the safest and most technologically advanced in the world and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has helped keep this industry going throughout the Covid 19 pandemic.
To all the drivers, collectors, pickers, logistics personnel etc, you have stood up to the challenges and done yourselves proud. Thank you!
Twenty years ago, most of the plastic waste collected in the UK was sent to landfill and records show that only 87,000 tonnes were exported, mainly to China and Hong Kong, for recycling. UK domestic recycling was in its infancy and only clean, segregated material was suitable for processing.
Ten years later in 2011, UK exports of plastic waste peaked at nearly 900,000 tonnes. During this time UK domestic processing capacity had grown and several plastic recycling facilities emerged at this time, albeit with varying degrees of success.
Recovery rates were at record levels and the industry was booming. With any developing industry, it attracted some who were less concerned about quality and more interested in making a quick buck.
As a result, the UK quickly developed a reputation for poor quality material which quite rightly resulted in tighter restrictions on exports. This ultimately resulted in the main market, China, totally banning plastic waste imports in 2018 with other neighbouring Asian countries quickly following suit.
In the mid- to late-2010’s Poland and Turkey appeared as viable alternatives with Turkey emerging as the largest receiver of plastic waste taking around 45% of the UK exports by 2020.
Then in mid-2021 Turkey introduced its own ban leaving exporters scrambling to find alternative outlets for material. Turkey has since reversed its ban, but we are still unable to import materials that have been mechanically sorted such as PET and HDPE bottles from UK MRFs.
Turkish facilities can import LDPE film, but since construction film has been banned from export by the UK EA, they are only able to take higher grade materials which are now in high demand both domestically and in Europe. This makes these grades uneconomic for Turkish processors due to high prices.
It will be interesting to see how things progress with Turkey, but my understanding is that they are still receiving mechanically sorted (191204) material under 150102 codes from European suppliers.
Generally, exports are declining with much greater investment in UK domestic processing which has got to be welcomed. If we look at the current situation, demand for all grades remains high with PP doing particularly well. This has resulted in steady prices. Transport into Europe has eased but remains an issue for movements within the UK due to lack of driver and wage disputes.
Looking ahead to 2022, it looks like domestic UK recycling will be larger than exports if they aren’t already. This is great news for the industry and the economy as a whole. Investors can now see that with further export restrictions, UK processing is a safe place for their investments.
The Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT) will take effect from April 2022. This means that any plastic packaging manufactured in the UK or imported must contain a minimum of 30% recycled plastic. Failure to meet this threshold will result in a £200 per tonne tax. This will provide a further boost to UK recycling and attract further investment in the sector.
Compliance for 2021 should be achieved, although due to a slower second half to the year, maybe only just. With carry over to 2022 expected to be small, higher PRN values could be the norm next year but who knows with the PRN system? It has a habit of doing the opposite of what is expected. Whatever 2022 brings, it’s certain to be another challenging year.
Martin Robb is sales and marketing director at Nevis Resources