Plastic recycling infrastructure held back by long-term council contracts Defra-backed study suggests

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Plastic recycling
Sorting recycled plastics

An academic study has said that long-term local authority contracts means plastic recycling infrastructure and technology ends up being ‘locked in’.

As a result, established processes such as energy from waste, mechanical biological treatment and landfill end up having a competitive advantage.

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The study by Brunel University and University of Leeds, funded by the Plastic and Research Innovation Fund and the Economic and Social Research Council working collaboratively with Defra, found that the current system of collecting and managing packaging waste actually disadvantages local authorities and discourages efforts to invest in plastic recycling infrastructure to exploit technological change.

This leads, according to the report, to an over-dependence on exporting waste to “markets with questionable recycling policies and also impairs consumer decision-making about how to dispose of plastic packaging waste”.

The study, Plastic Packaging – How do we get to where we want to be? that is published on the Defra website, also suggests that household sorting of plastic packaging and separate collection of these plastics is the overall most cost-efficient solution, especially as rejection rates at materials recycling facilities and plastic recycling facilities are high.

However, it also argues that the PRN/PERN system also creates another ‘lock-in’ situation by creating routines in how material is traded.

But the report also considers that local authorities need to receive more value for the material they collect to enable shorter contracts and more innovation.

Indeed, it says that the current system is highly problematic and destined to fail.

The report states: “The current EPR [Extended Producer Responsibility] implementation creates a particular set of routines and competences that are bound to lead to failure. For example, it overburdens LAs with the cost of collection and management of plastic packaging waste, offering very little (if any) cost compensation.

“It also hampers infrastructure investment due to uncertainty over cost returns leading to a growing dependence on export markets, and encourages a lack of transparency regarding the sale of evidence notes and the way income from them supports recycling of packaging waste. The new EPR proposal for reforming the UK Packaging Producer Responsibility System is being designed to correct these failures and support improvements in the system.”

However, to meet required recycling rates means “there needs to be a system change”.

It adds: “It cannot be done by siloed-thinking and interventions that focus only on one or a few parts of the plastic packaging system. Regulators, local, regional and national government need to work together with brand designers, manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, retailers, waste management companies, recyclers consumers and other organisations (eg trade unions, associations) to coordinate their actions across the system and make it economically feasible to maintain secondary materials markets; to promote technological innovation and investment; to consistently implement transparent environmental policies; and to use information-based instruments to raise consumer awareness and create a sense of ownership of environmental goals to improve waste separation at households and minimise litter and illegal disposal.”

Brunel University lecturer in environmental management Eleni Iacovidou said that dealing with some of these barriers was crucial to achieving this change.

She said: “Innovation in the waste and recycling industry is really swift, but our local authorities cannot take advantage of the current system. Confronting and breaking the lock-ins to current regulations and infrastructures is key to achieving radical transformations in the plastic packaging system and in resource recovery systems more generally.”

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